CAMANO ISLAND — It started with the idea of a free dinner for veterans, a chance to recognize their service.
The first year, there were so many guests they had to turn people away. There weren’t supplies or space for more than about 70.
The team of volunteers at Camano Chapel planned for more people the following year, and they had enough space and food — barely. They are planning their third dinner for November.
Now, the group is in much deeper than dinner planning. The volunteers formed HIS Veterans, a ministry at Camano Chapel that focuses on connecting veterans, active duty military and their families to local resources and to one another.
“We don’t want any of our service members or their families to be alone,” said Leonard Ralston, a Marine Corps veteran who had the idea for that first dinner. “That’s our No. 1 goal.”
The group has sent cards and care packages to soldiers and hosted yard sales to raise money for the dinner so it stays free for veterans. There’s Bible study and fellowship three Thursdays of the month, and the last Thursday is set aside for guest speakers. Those presentations are open to the public. There have been talks about veterans resources, death benefits and organizations such as the American Legion or Growing Veterans.
Leonard Ralston served in Vietnam, as did his wife, Mary, who was an Army nurse and later worked at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Both have been homeless in the past, and they want to provide whatever help they can to veterans in need.
“I know what it’s like to go ask for help and say, ‘I’m a veteran,’ and have someone say, ‘So what?’” Leonard Ralston said.
Keith Yarter Sr. is chairman of the group. He served in the Air Force for six years, then in the Army for 21. He “got planted by Uncle Sam” in Washington, and ended up staying. HIS Veterans is one way he aims to give back to his community.
“We want to empower and encourage, and at the same time to embrace veterans,” he said. “We want to be sure that they know they have another avenue to go to. We don’t replace anything. We’re just another place to go.”
It can be frustrating for veterans or military families who are looking for help but can’t seem to find the right route.
“We’re here. We’re available,” Yarter said. “The biggest thing is just to know that someone cares.”
Tracey Meck retired from the Air Force in 2012 and was part of the team that put on the first veterans dinner. She sees the group as a place where veterans can meet and share stories few others understand.
“Veterans have unique experiences in their past, and a lot of them don’t feel comfortable discussing those types of things with civilians who have never experienced them and have no clue what they’re talking about,” Meck said. “We have a whole different language we speak, a lot of acronyms and things that mean a lot to us, but civilians look at us like we’re out of our minds if we don’t translate.”
There are resources available for veterans to get mental and physical health care, but she sees a need for spiritual care, as well. That’s where HIS Veterans comes in. The members can relate on their triumphs and struggles. For Meck, the struggle was finding herself after spending most of her life in the military. She spent time overseas and around Washington, D.C. Now, she’s retired on Camano Island.
“I lost my identity. Who am I now?” she said. “I went from being a colonel in the Pentagon as a liaison to the State Department doing pre-deployment training, to walking my dog.”
Lynda Buehring is the newest member of the group. She was with the Air Force and the Department of Homeland Security. She’s found the gatherings with HIS Veterans to be heartfelt and fulfilling, she said. She hopes the group can grow. Everyone brings new skills and ideas.
Jim Birkenbuel was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and his wife, Gael, grew up around the military, with a father who fought in World War II and a brother who served. They want to include active duty military in their outreach.
They are looking for information on soldiers who would like letters, cards or care packages. Families in the area with loved ones who are serving are encouraged to contact Camano Chapel at 360-387-7202.
The group’s Thursday gatherings are at 6 p.m. at the chapel, 867 W Camano Drive.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.