Homeless for years, U.S. Navy veteran Joseph Robertson now is living at the Detroit Veterans Center, a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans run by the Michigan Veterans Foundation (MVF).
He and 34 of the facility’s residents recently were shown they are not forgotten. The group was among the guests at American Legion Post 200’s 48th Annual Veterans Thanksgiving Dinner on Nov. 19 at the post’s home in Taylor, Mich.
Being invited to the post made a powerful impact on Robertson. “It means a lot for a veteran that was homeless for five years on the street,” he said. “To come here to The American Legion and have a home-cooked meal – especially when you don’t have too much family – it’s really special.”
The residents at the Detroit Veterans Center joined 45 residents from the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit at the dinner. Legion family members, state Legion leadership and National Commander Denise Rohan also were in attendance, bringing the total to well over 200 guests.
Rohan, who has made “Family First” her motto, praised Post 200’s Legion family for providing the meal for what has been decades – and picking the kickoff of National Family Week as the day of the dinner.
“Here we are in the middle of National Family Week,” Rohan said. “What better way (to celebrate it) than to open the Legion home up to the community and invite veterans in and see what we do inside our post walls? And to give the opportunity to people to have a nice hot meal – and not only that, but have the time to talk to each other – what a great opportunity for veterans and their families to come together.
“The fact they’ve been doing this for this long says amazing things about their volunteers. It says a lot. And the fact the community is here and invited … it just shows that (the post is) part of this community.”
Post 200’s first veterans dinner started by hosting what Auxiliary Unit 200 Treasurer Diana Gardner thinks was around six veterans. It’s grown substantially, requiring both many hours and volunteers from the post’s family.
Gardner said the post had been working on the event daily for two weeks. She spent the Thursday and Friday before the meal cooking 20 20-pounds or larger turkeys and then arrived at the post at 6:30 a.m. on the day of the dinner to join others in finishing up prep work.
By the time the meal was ready, it consisted of 60 pounds of sweet potatoes, 60 pounds each of corn and green beans, 442 rolls, 37 pies, four 30-slice cakes and “mashed potatoes, I couldn’t tell you the exact pounds, but trays upon trays,” Gardner said. But every second of work is worth the effort.
“For us, it’s the greatest honor we could have for these veterans to come in and visit with us,” Gardner said. “It’s our privilege to be able to do this for them. It’s unbelievable how many people we get to volunteer for this event.”
Money for the dinner is raised at the post through donations. Putting on this year’s dinner cost approximately $3,000, Post 200 Commander John Martin said.
“We think at least once a year somebody needs to do something for (those veterans),” said Martin, who has been involved with the dinner for 40 years. “It’s just been a passionate thing. (And) without the volunteers we could never do it. We have volunteer cooks, everything.”
Post 200 First Vice Commander Chuck Teschke has volunteered at the dinner since he joined the post 13 years ago. Tears welled up in his eyes when he talked about why the post continues to host the dinner.
“These (veterans) don’t get out,” Teschke said. “That’s our driving force: helping these guys out. Giving them a day off.”
Derrick McQueen, who served in the Navy from 1977-1981 and now lives at the Detroit Veterans Center, said being invited to Post 200 “means a whole lot. I’m very grateful that they invited us to come here to have fellowship with veterans and to have a good celebration for Thanksgiving.”
Being guests at Post 200 means more than just a meal, MVF Executive Director Tyrone Chatman said. “It has a great deal of therapeutic value for those veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, combat-related stress, homelessness and unemployment,” he said. “Having (The American Legion) show us our service has not been forgotten, it means a lot."
During the dinner, Junior ROTC cadets from John F. Kennedy and Harry S. Truman high schools in Taylor provided a color guard and also helped both greet and serve the veterans attending the dinner. And residents of the Detroit Veterans Center who attended the dinner also were given gift bags that included $25 gift cards and homemade blankets from Post 200’s Legion family, as well as stockings containing hats, gloves and other items from American Legion Post 217 in Wyandotte, Mich.
“I’m extremely proud of Post 200,” said Department of Michigan Commander Brett Holt, who attended this year’s dinner. “This is what The American Legion is about. This is what we should all be doing at all of our posts: opening our post home up, working together as a family to serve our community and to serve the veterans in our communities.
“Veterans in the hospital sometimes don’t have family or friends in the area. This is an opportunity to bring them in, give them a Thanksgiving meal, and let them know they’re thought of and cared for by The American Legion.”