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More than free food: Veterans find community at weekly lunch

  • Eddie Hanlon, a volunteer with Building Bridges, serves a meatball grinder to Dan Willard at the World War II club’s weekly Wednesday lunch for veterans. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom Szydziak at the World War II club in Northampton for the Wednesday lunch put on by Building Bridges for Veterans. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom Szydziak started going to the luncheons a few months ago and immediately found a home among other veterans.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left Henry Matuszko, Eugene Waskiwicz, Earl Mason, and Tom Patrick at the World War II club in Northampton for the Wednesday lunch put on by Building Bridges for Veterans. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Eddie Hanlon, a volunteer with Building Bridges, serves Edwin Nartowicz lunch at the World War II club for the Wednesday lunch. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • After meeting at the luncheons, John Kelley (above, right, with Teddy Nikonczyk) says they’ve formed a group that goes to the Northampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center every morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left Teddy Nikonczyk and John Kelley at the World War II club in Northampton for the Wednesday lunch put on by Building Bridges for Veterans. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom Szydziak at the World War II club in Northampton for the Wednesday lunch put on by Building Bridges for Veterans. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left with just his hat showing, Edwin Nartowicz, Jack Devlin,Ed Morrissey, who is the oldest attending the lunch at 96, Henry Matuszko, Eugene Waskiwicz, Earl Mason, and Tom Patrick at the World War II club in Northampton for the Wednesday lunch put on by Building Bridges for Veterans. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left Henry Matuszko and Eugene Waskiewicz and at the World War II club in Northampton for the Wednesday lunch put on by Building Bridges for Veterans. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left Tom Patrick and Edwin Nartowicz at the World War II club in Northampton for the Wednesday lunch put on by Building Bridges for Veterans. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



@AndyCCastillo
Saturday, November 10, 2018

Savory meatballs in tomato sauce on a toasted grinder with sugar cookies for dessert. It’s a simple meal, but also the centerpiece of something more profound.

“All the vets come. It’s a place to gather and talk,” said Tom Sydziak, a peace-time Army veteran who served for a few years in his 20s. He was just inside Northampton’s World War II Club and paused to talk on his way to lunch at the weekly Building Bridges veterans luncheon, hosted by the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts.

Like many of the 50 or so veterans who faithfully attend, Sydziak initially came for the free food. He stayed for the camaraderie that he discovered among his peers. But it wasn’t always like that. 

In the years after he left the military in the late 1970s, Sydziak, 62, didn’t associate much with other veterans, and he wasn’t always proud of his service. While stationed in Germany, he was assaulted by a fellow American soldier while serving on the base.

“It’s still with me 40 years later. All this trauma,” Sydziak said, pausing to talk just inside the club’s doorway on his way in for lunch. “The guy hit me with a cue stick, tore my ear off, and almost killed me.”

The assault, while physically brutal, left a lasting psychological wound that has taken him decades to come to terms with. These days, however, Sydziak readily talks about what it’s like to live with post traumatic stress disorder. And today, Sydziak, of South Hadley, proudly wears a green military t-shirt and a black 4th Infantry Bravo Company baseball cap, whereas before, he didn’t want to be associated with the military or remember his experiences. 

A fellow veteran opened the door just then, and Sydziak turned to say hello. They talked about life, the weather and the pros and cons of the World War II-era Thompson submachine gun.

“It’s a 45 caliber — a big slug. They didn’t use it in Vietnam. They used that piece of junk the M16,” Sydziak said.

Sydziak started going to the weekly luncheons a few months ago, he says. Immediately, he found a home among other veterans around the lunch table. Food was a way past his defenses.

“Building Bridges was founded on the logic that food gathers people,” said Rev. Christopher Carlisle, director of the veterans ministry, which is operated through donations and put on entirely by volunteers. Food is a basic human necessity, he says. For Carlisle, the luncheons are “sort of a spiritual ritual.”

Each week, a meal is prepared by volunteers Ilona Murray of Easthampton and Eddie Hanlon, who worked as a professional chef for 37 years at area restaurants including the Silver Spoon in Northampton.

While the meals are usually simple, Hanlon says he adds flair by cooking with spices, and he occasionally makes more extravagant dishes, like roast beef with red peppers and spices.

Chad Wright, a veteran himself and associate director of Building Bridges, noted he tries to schedule special meals around holidays like Veterans Day and Christmas. Sitting across the table, Richard Rice, who served in a physiology lab studying night vision as an Army research doctor during Vietnam, highlighted a shepherd’s pie dish that Hanlon makes that he says is particularly delicious.

Rice, a practicing psychiatriste on Crafts Avenue, says he came to the luncheon one day in past months for a meal. Since then, the community he’s found has helped him to identify more as a veteran, and now he spends lunch hour every Wednesday at the club, Rice says.

Since starting Building Bridges about five years ago, Carlisle says the luncheons have grown dramatically — and expanded from Northampton to nearby cities like Holyoke and Greenfield. Close friendships have formed within the bigger community. He points to a table of World War II veterans, another mostly of veterans of Vietnam, and a third where younger veterans who fought in more recent wars are seated.

“We sit at the same table, in the same spot at the table,” said Anthony Caggiano, a Vietnam-era Army veteran. Around him, a half-dozen other veterans laughed and talked.

They’re close friends now, says John Kelley, who also served in Vietnam in the Army, who was seated across the table. After meeting at the luncheons, Kelley says they’ve formed a group that goes to the Northampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center every morning.

"It’s really extended family,” Caggiano said. 

Sydziak says he turned a corner after discovering the luncheons. Recently, he attended his first Disabled American Veterans meeting to help manage his post traumatic stress disorder. And just the other day he connected with another veteran who, like him, had disassociated with the military for a number of years. Sydziak says he was able to listen and empathize with his experiences.

“I want to help other guys to realize they have problems,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing. You have a lot of stuff going on in your head.”

For Sydziak, his healing started over a simple meal.

“Thank God there are nice people in the world,” he said. 

How to connect

The World War II Club, 50 Conz St. in Northampton, hosts the veterans luncheon every Wednesday starting at noon. Entry and food is free for veterans, their friends, and family members. Elsewhere, luncheons can be found throughout the Pioneer Valley in Greenfield, Chicopee, Holyoke, South Deerfield, West Springfield, and soon in Pittsfield and Worcester. For more information visit

buildingbridgeswma.com

A comprehensive list of each luncheon location follows: South Deerfield Polish American Citizens Club, 46 South Main St. in South Deerfield on the last Tuesday of the month from noon to 1:30 p.m.; Elks Lodge, 2 Church St. in Greenfield, ​Thursdays from noon to 1:30 p.m.; Elks Lodge, 431 Granby Road in Chicopee, Fridays, noon to 1:30 p.m.; St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 485 Appleton St., Holyoke, ​Thursdays from noon to 2 p.m.; Grace Lutheran Church, 1552 Westfield St., West Springfield, last Wednesday of the month, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.