ENFIELD, Conn. - For many veterans who reside at the Little Sisters of the Poor assisted living facility in Enfield, Conn., the Veterans Day celebration that is held every year is greeted with a Christmas-like excitement. Inside the dining hall, the veterans seat themselves for lunch with uniformed Airmen of the Connecticut Air National Guard, current and retired, who volunteer their time to spend the day with these heroes. As they enjoy lunch, they all begin sharing their experiences; the veterans regaling the younger service members with stories full of humor and heroism, heartbreak and hope, and freely offering advice and wisdom. Smiles, laughs, and even a few tears are shared among everyone. There is a kinship in this room that is palpable.
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Robert Zukauskas, a veteran who retired from the Connecticut Air National Guard in 2013, directs this program, hosting it this year on Nov. 9.
“I used to chair toastmasters and we held meetings in the hall here,” said Zukauskas. “About eight years ago, the entertainment director here was trying to figure out a way to honor the veterans who live at the home. At the time, I was still working in the Guard and brought along several other members, and we’ve been holding this event here every year since.”
Zukauskas, who enlisted in the Connecticut Air National Guard in 1981 as an aerospace ground equipment specialist, had his share of deployments, having deployed four times throughout his career. After his initial enlistment as a drill status Guardsman, he began working full-time at Bradley Air National Guard Base as an A-10 engine mechanic and finished out his 32-year career as the chief of maintenance in the 103rd Airlift Wing’s communications flight. His experience, he feels, is a way for him to connect with the veterans who live in the home.
“The biggest thing about veterans is our stories,” said Zukauskas. “I could sit with a civilian and tell them what I’m doing, but they wouldn’t really have a clue what I’m doing. They have no idea. We do some extremely dangerous things, we put ourselves in extremely dangerous situations, and we depend on the people that we work with; we’re all brothers and sisters. When I left the military I really found myself alone. It’s hard to find people like yourself, so I like getting veterans together and giving them the opportunity to talk.”
This became most apparent to him the first year he held the Veterans Day program at Little Sisters of the Poor.
“The first year we did this program, I asked one of the nuns if there were any more veterans than hadn’t come down for the lunch,” said Zukauskas. “She told me there were a couple more in their beds, but they didn’t want to come down. I asked if we could visit them and she said yes. When I walked into the room of one veteran, he saw my uniform and he pointed right at me and said, ‘Omaha Beach, Utah Beach.’ I sat down with him and he proceeded to tell me he was an LST driver for D-day, how he saw all of these young men floating in the water, all of the blood, the guys falling off the cliffs and the Germans shooting them down…he went through one thing after another. He told me how he remembered going back to the ship and getting more men and bringing them back to the beach, how he opened the door up and watched the men immediately getting shot. This guy was going on, reliving his experience, and I’m just listening when this nun runs in and she sits down next to me. She turns to me and says, ‘This is my dad. He has never talked about World War II with anyone and I need to find out what he went through.’ He continued talking about that day; it was like he had this whole experience, this whole war in his head and he wouldn’t tell anybody, and when I walked in and he saw my uniform it just all came out. That right there is the biggest thing about this program, just allowing the veterans to talk, let it get out. You can’t just talk to anybody about what you did because they wouldn’t understand it. They wouldn’t understand what you’ve been through, but talking to another veteran definitely helps, and that’s why we do it.”
2nd Lt. Jennifer Kaprielian, of the 103rd Airlift Wing equal opportunity office, shares a similar sentiment. This is her third year participating in the Veterans Day program here, and she believes that volunteering her time with the veterans is important.
“I think the statement that sums up why we do this the best comes from one of the veterans here,” said Kaprielian. “He said to me, ‘It’s nice to be remembered.’ So us taking time out of our day to remember these veterans and give them our attention, being able to ask them about their lives, is really meaningful. They’re a part of our local community and I feel that the Connecticut Air National Guard really is community driven. Most of us in the Guard live in towns throughout Connecticut. It’s just a nice way to be involved in the community and to give back.”
The Veterans Day program ended late afternoon after a presentation commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and a rendition of taps. As everyone said their goodbyes and shared handshakes and hugs, it was evident these veterans and their stories would be remembered long after this day.