Volunteer at the annual Veteran’s Holiday Celebration on Dec. 2. Meet new people and make new friends while honoring America’s heroes.
When Paul Leazer, a twice-divorced contractor from Costa Mesa, signed up for a seminar about relationships four years ago, he was simply fishing for some insights into the way men and women relate to each other. The weekend-long workshop didn’t teach him how to win females in the dating game, but did nudge him toward an altogether gentler epiphany.
“I learned it’s all about building meaningful relationships with the opposite sex,” Leazer says. “Not necessarily intimate or romantic relationships, but something that has to do with a higher purpose in life.” So when Laura Walsh, an account manager from Woodland Hills he had met at the seminar asked Leazer to help coordinate the annual veterans holiday celebration held on the grounds of the Veterans Affairs campus in Brentwood, he leaped at the chance.
The event, now in its 20th year, fêtes about 4,000 vets, their families and active duty personnel with a lavish pre-Christmas supper, live music performances, and assorted entertainment. Though it began as a modest affair in 1992, when several locals gathered at the VA hospital to strum their guitars and sing carols for bed-ridden war vets during the holidays, the party has snowballed into a grand production. It’s now staffed by 650 volunteers, who, throughout the year, organize fund raisers, work the phones to solicit food donations from L.A. restaurants and equipment from party rental companies, or network to wrangle celebrity guests like John Belushi and Jason Alexander.
Two non-profit organizations, Men’s Division International and The Family of Women, local Veterans Affairs volunteer programs, local businesses and West L.A. churches all pitch in to prep and host the celebration. “It’s just neat for the community to see that men and women can work together like that,” Leazer says.
Though no war vet himself, he explains that the involvement has rekindled his emotional ties to those who are. “My father was in World War II, and I had a cousin who went to Vietnam and died when he was 21 years old. He never had a chance to have a family, or kids, or even find out who he really was,” Leazer adds. “But he did give his life for the country I get to live in today, and I want to honor that.”
Volunteers at the event testify that coming together each December to roast turkeys and bake sweet potato pies, put up a giant party tent, festoon tables with flags and flowers, or stuff goodie bags for the vets — many of them homeless, disabled, or recovering from substance addictions — who line up expectantly hours before the party, has brought the plight of U.S. armed forces veterans closer to heart.
Elizabeth Stern, a second-grade teacher from West Los Angeles first volunteered at the party a decade ago, cooking and serving food. “I saw the faces of the veterans, and the camaraderie of the men and women who were putting the event on, and it brought me enormous enjoyment,” she says today.
Stern kept coming back every year, eventually taking on logistical and managerial responsibilities. “We have active duty personnel who come, people who are well adjusted, people who have gone through rehab at the VA hospital and gotten their lives back together. But a lot of the veterans are broken men — they show up at the party looking for free food, for some entertainment, and some love— and feel ever so grateful that we provide that.”
The California Department of Veterans Affairs reports that more than 27,000 vets return home looking for work every year. Many have difficulties landing a steady job or rejoining the flow of civilian life, and struggle with post-traumatic stress disorders. Vets also make up 12 percent of Los Angeles’ county’s homeless population.
For Laura Walsh, participating in the event meant personal engagement with an issue that is politicized, especially during this presidential election year, yet remains oddly remote to those of us who have no relatives or close acquaintances affected by the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and in the Middle East.
“I’d never been involved with anything that had to do with veterans before this,” Walsh says. “And once I was, it shocked me to learn how little veterans are appreciated. I still tear up when I recall running into a Vietnam vet who came to the party and saw a huge banner we had put up that said, “Welcome home and thank you.” He told me it was the first time he’d ever been thanked for his service.”
Colonel Tom Magness, a Desert Storm veteran who oversees an army corps of engineers in charge of civil and military constructions throughout the U.S. Southwest, brought along his children and spouse. “No sooner did we step foot on the grounds,” he recalls, “that someone assigned my 16-year-old and 12-year-old to be greeters in the reception area, alongside my wife.
“I walked around and spoke to some of these warriors, and gave them a hug, and thanked them,” Magness said. “I was in uniform, and probably one of the few active-duty military men they saw that day. It probably meant something to them, but it meant a lot more to me and my family.”
“Most veterans just love to talk and share their experiences,” Magness adds. “And when they see another soldier, they can’t wait to do so. I’m an airborne ranger. And those paratroopers who were in attendance couldn’t wait to tell me how many jumps they had, and compare badges — stuff like that.”
For the rest of us non-combatants, the satisfaction lies in the knowledge that we’re engaged in an effort that reaches out to war veterans compassionately, and apolitically.
“You can get mad at the politicians who pulled the trigger and made those decisions to go and do war,” Leazer says. “If you disagree with it, that’s fine. But why take it out on war veterans? We could strive to bring our community together, and quit being in wars.”
Barry Gershenson, president of the board of directors for the event, said he thinks volunteering is one of the best ways people can honor veterans for their service. “I keep working the event because I do not think there is enough said by our country to honor and thank our active duty soldiers and our veterans,” said Gershenson. “Every year our wonderful volunteers tell me how touched and filled-up they are knowing that they made a difference in so many lives.”
Gershenson said that with the depressed economy, the number of returning soldiers and the increasing number of homeless veterans, the need has never been greater.
The 20th free annual Veterans Holiday Celebration will take place on Sunday, December 2, 2012 at the West Los Angeles VA Campus at 11301 Wilshire Blvd. just west of the 405 Freeway. The festivities, which include dinner, live music performances, dance, and entertainment, kick off at 12:30 p.m. To volunteer at the event, or for more information, visit www.vhcevent.org or call 866.955.8387.