NEWINGTON – Area veterans feeling lonely or distraught during the pandemic were reminded just how much they meant to fellow Americans this Veterans Day.
The tiny-but-mighty clubhouse at the corner of Willard and Stoddard Avenues – home to American Legion Post 117 - opened its doors to any and all veterans Wednesday. Men and women who served for the U.S. military filtered in, sitting at tables six feet apart and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance through fabric covering their mouths.
“We all have a bond,” Robert Sorice, from Bristol, pointed out. “Especially during this time, it’s important we get together and socialize and not isolate ourselves. It’s important for vets to be with other vets. We understand each other.”
The special Veterans Day gathering was organized by the Newington Vet Coffee House (NVCH) in conjunction with The Chapel, Neptune Cremation and DiBella’s Subs. It was an off-shoot of the weekly NVCH event, held at Post 117 Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Veterans enjoyed coffee and lunch together, their eyes turning up in smiles every time someone tapped them on the shoulder to say “thank you for your service.”
“With all this so-called social-distancing, which is really physical distancing, we’ve become way too anti-social,” said NVCH founder Chris Veilleux, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm.
An estimated 20 to 30 veterans per day die of suicide in our nation, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Veilleux started the NVCH in hopes of giving fellow veterans an escape from the stresses of daily life and a platform for camaraderie and resource-sharing.
“With counseling centers being closed and the usual services unavailable right now, this is a place they can feel comfortable and safe,” he explained. “It might stop them from doing something they or their families might regret.”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, common among vets from all eras, along with mental and physical disabilities – now mixed with isolation due to covid-19 restrictions - wear on those who fought to protect our freedoms.
“It’s been hard,” said David Togninalli, a Vietnam-era vet who lives in Burlington with his wife. “A bunch of us used to meet once a week at the Rocky Hill Veterans Home. Now since they’ve been closed we were meeting in a park, but it’s getting cold outside.”
Togninalli admitted he’s always been more of a loner, but the self-isolation has been particularly tough on other veterans he knows.
“Our group has been a release for all of us,” he added. “We share stories. We help each other out with VA issues.”
Post 117 historian Phillip Witham held up his camera to snap a photograph of the Missing Persons Table set for six, with the customary accoutrements: a lemon, a rose, a bible, salt and a candle.
“I’m doing just fine,” Witham said, a sparkle in his eye. “I just turned 90 October 25. I’m probably a year younger than this Post now.”
Daniel Wynne, of New Britain, served in the U.S. Marines from 1981-1985. He’s now a Reservist with FEMA who recently spent six months on a remote deployment after returning home from Louisiana, where he provided emergency response to Hurricane Delta.
“I like to feel like I’m still useful to somebody,” Wynne said. “I think a sense of mission is really powerful.”
In lieu of Newington’s annual Veterans Day Ceremony of the Roses, town officials and volunteers put together an hour-long video presentation for Newington Community Television. It played all Wednesday and is now available to watch on-demand at NCTV.org.
“Typically we would be able to celebrate our veterans with a big ceremony, but we couldn’t do that this year,” Mayor Beth DelBuono said in her clip. “We want to make sure our veterans know exactly how much we honor, appreciate and respect everything they’ve done for us. We have rights because of you.”
Maj. Gen. Fran Evon Jr., Adjutant General of the CT National Guard and a town resident, also gave an address.
“Our nation’s veterans throughout our history have kept us free,” Evon said. “They have returned home and continued to serve our nation in a multitude of ways. Today we say thank you to all of them.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at email@example.com.