By TAYLOR HARTZ
On the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, Denise Johnson wanted to find a way to honor local members of the military for their service and sacrifice.
Through the Elks Lodge 1669, where she has been a member since 2008, she hosted a Military Appreciation dinner to recognize veterans, active military members, and their families.
Now in its fourth year, Johnson hosted her largest dinner yet on Saturday, Jan. 30, providing a free meal to dozens of veterans, with more than 150 attendees.
The not-for-profit dinner offered a complimentary meal to all members of the military with a $5 ticket for family members.
Local fundraisers and $10 general admission tickets sponsored the buffet-style banquet, which included pot roast, slow-cooked chicken, and a variety of appetizers, side dishes, and desserts.
Throughout the evening, veterans were honored by wearing a white carnation on their shirt, presented by Girl Scout troop 66150. The fourth-grade Girl Scouts from Plantsville Elementary School said they were honored and proud to honor local veterans.
“It’s nice to do because they did a lot for our country,” Lindsay Valentino said about volunteering at the dinner.
Girl Scout Maggie Wenicki added that she “felt honored since not many people would be given this opportunity to help our veterans.”
During dinner, Wenicki read an essay titled “What it is to be an American” where she thanked the veterans for their service.
Many veterans at the dinner shared that the appreciation and recognition meant a great deal to them.
Marine 1st Sgt. Ben Granger, who has served in the United States Marines for 24 years, has helped with the dinner since its inception and plans to continue supporting the night of appreciation. After serving in Operation Dessert Storm, Granger was sent to the Marine Corps Reserve Unit in Plainville.
While stationed in Fallujah, Iraq, Granger said he and his fellow Marines received a great deal of support and supplies from Plainville and Southington residents, and he has enjoyed staying involved in the communities that helped them.
The Marine said that the event offers a unique opportunity for older veterans. “Many of them didn’t get all the recognition of people like myself who have been through the current wars,” said Granger of those who served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. “In their golden years, the appreciation means a lot more.”
Granger said that he is very glad the dinner has succeeded as an annual event because it reaches a larger audience each year, allowing veterans of all ages to know they are appreciated.
“Every year, one more [veteran] gets to hear it who hasn’t heard it, and somebody gets to hear it who will never hear it again,” said Granger, “I hope it makes their whole life feel more fulfilling.”
At this year’s dinner, 93-year-old World War II veteran Everett, of Plainville, said he enjoyed gathering with fellow veterans again this year.
“It’s a very nice event, there aren’t many of us World War II veterans left,” said Everett.
Johnson, who coordinates the dinner, said the number of interested military members grows each year, with more than 50 attending on Jan. 30.
She hopes to continue expanding her reach to surrounding towns in the upcoming years.
Southington Town Councilor Stephanie Urillo (R) and State Rep. David Zoni (D) both attended the dinner and read proclamations on behalf of the town and state thanking the veterans for their service, and recognizing the Elks Lodge for hosting the dinner.
The meal was cooked entirely by volunteer members of the Elks Lodge, and served by members of the Southington High School Cyber Knights robotics team, who volunteer their time each year to set up, serve, and clean for the event.
A quarter auction held in town last month brought in approximately $680 to fund the meal, and the Cyber Knights donated an additional $200.
At the end of the evening, Johnson thanked the members of the military for their service and for putting their lives on their line for their country.
“It’s a very meaningful to me,” said Johnson. “Without them we wouldn’t have the freedoms to do the things we get to do.”
Photos by TAYLOR HARTZ
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