Support for veterans should cross party lines, Congressman James McGovern says at World War II Club lunch



Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Some veterans had questions for U.S. Rep. James McGovern about privatizing health care. One raised an IRS issue. Another wanted the congressman to know about a moldy rug in his apartment. Over pork chops and potatoes, the Worcester Democrat chatted with local veterans about everything from the New England Patriots to Donald Trump.

“I had a thousand different conversations on a thousand different topics,” McGovern said Wednesday afternoon as he was leaving the World War II Club on Conz Street, noting that he was moved by the way the veterans seemed to be looking out for one another.

In their second year, the weekly free lunches are part of a “Building Bridges” initiative by the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts to create a community for veterans, a population that is often stigmatized and isolated, said the program’s director Rev. Christopher Carlisle.

“When veterans come back, they need their services, which are often provided by the government. The question is: What about their cultural contact with the rest of the world?” Carlisle said. “For many people, to be identified as a veteran is to be set apart.”

On Wednesday, about 35 people gathered at round tables to catch up. Among them was World War II veteran Edwin Nartowicz, 92, who served in North Africa and Italy as a gunner in the Army. He has been coming since the lunches began a year ago. “It’s something to do,” he said.

Conversations tend to focus on politics or sports, Nartowicz said, explaining that they try not to dwell on “the bad stuff” — which for him is dominated by memories of sleeping in the mud and snow, perpetually freezing. “That was a hard, hard time,” he said.

The lunches attract mostly older veterans, some of whom are long retired and some of whom are homeless and living on the streets or at the nonprofit Soldier On facility in Leeds.

“Some of these guys have got problems, you can see it,” said Jack Devlin, 72, of Florence, a former Navy medic, looking around the room. “They’re battling demons.”

Camaraderie

For some veterans, the Wednesday lunches are the only chance they have at a real conversation all week, the program’s assistant director Ali Brauner said, noting that it’s about more than providing food, but a sense of camaraderie.

“The military trains you to function on a moral code that runs really counter to what society says is OK,” Brauner said. “And then drops you back in.”

To Jerry, a Florence veteran who gave only his first name, this sentiment rings true. “They want you to serve but then after they say what have you done for me lately,” he said.

Speaking as he ate, complimenting what he said could be “re-enlistment chow,” the 77-year-old veteran said he planned to check out McGovern’s Northampton office on Pleasant Street, and see if the congressman’s staff could help him navigate conversations with Veterans Affairs.

“Sometimes dealing with the bureaucracy is kind of hard,” Jerry said, particularly since he doesn’t have a working computer or a cellphone.

At a table nearby, a conversation between McGovern and several veterans segued from baseball to politics, drifting into a conversation about the appeal of presidential candidates and increasing vitriol on both sides of the aisle.

“I will have been in Congress 20 years by the end of this year, and I worked in government before,” McGovern said. “I’ve seen it work and I’ve seen it not work. I’ve never seen it quite as polarized as it is now.”

World War II veteran Ed Toole, 91, of Whately piped in: “And that’s not what our government is based on, it’s about cooperation.”

Locally, too, these politics play into the way veterans are received.

Though Northampton is “an unusually welcoming place for folks who are marginalized,” its predominantly liberal and anti-war atmosphere can sometimes lead people to view veterans in a negative light, Carlisle said.

Referring to work done by Hampshire College professor Robert Meagher, author of “Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War,” Carlisle said it’s possible to hate war and love veterans.

And McGovern said he believes that taking care of veterans should not be a partisan issue.

“I’m someone who I guess would be known as a ‘dove’ in Congress. But I consider myself one of the strongest advocates of veterans,” he said. “Whether you support the war or are against the war, the one thing we should all come together on is supporting our veterans. None of these guys asked to go anywhere they served, it’s the politicians who voted for these wars. They went out of a duty and love for our country. That should be without question.”

McGovern, who has crafted legislation promoting service dogs for veterans and co-sponsored several bills related to veterans’ needs, has repeatedly questioned the nation’s military involvement in the Middle East.

The congressman’s visit Wednesday showed his “evident concern for the urgent and ongoing needs of our veterans — young and old — whose lives have been given on behalf of us all,” Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts Bishop Douglas Fisher, who could not attend, said in a statement. He added, “I believe it is also a manifest acknowledgement that the Church, government and the culture-at-large can together make for a community worthy of them to come home to.”

Devlin said he was glad to see McGovern at the lunch, and was eager to see how he would respond to veterans’ questions.

“The true test of a congressman: when you go see him with a problem, does he solve it?” Devlin said. “Whether you’re liberal or conservative, I don’t think it really matters, as long as the person, whether it be a guy or gal, is your voice to fight bureaucracy.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.


 


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