Jesus Aguilera tried a little bit of everything at the free Thanksgiving meal offered Thursday at the Garden City Elks Lodge. 


At 91 years old, Aguilera is a native of western Kansas who served as a Marine in Saipan, Japan and China in the 1940s during WWII. Family members say Veteran’s Day is his favorite holiday, but the free feast for veterans at the Elks Lodge might have made Thanksgiving this year a close second.


The Elks Lodge hosted an inaugural free Thanksgiving meal Thursday afternoon for veterans and anyone else who decided to attend. Though attendees without any connection to the military were given the option to donate $8, everyone was allowed free admittance to a food frenzy that honored the community spirit of the holiday season.


The feast also served another important function, according to Elks Lodge Exalted Ruler Linda Velez. She said it’s difficult to locate the veterans of the community, and so she figured a free dinner might draw out vets allowing Velez and her team to gauge their needs and meet those needs through concerted community service efforts. 


For Jack Bruns, who served two years of active duty in Japan and Korea in the 1960s, his children couldn’t make it to spend Thanksgiving with him, so he decided to try something new.


“We certainly appreciate to have a nice meal like this and a place to go on Thanksgiving, and we sure appreciate the good food,” he said. 


The Elks Lodge is a national fraternal order with nearly a million members across the country and 149 years of history. Every year, the Elks Lodge gives millions of dollars away in scholarships to solidify its mission to inspire youth, be a friend to veterans and enrich local communities.


The event, which was a first for the Garden City chapter, offered turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, rolls, jello, rice, pumpkin cheesecake, apple pie, pumpkin pie, custard pie and so much more as part of what may become an annual smorgasbord. 


Velez said she hopes the event will put the organization in touch with local veterans in need. Whether it be financial, culinary or manual assistance, the Elks Lodge’s members want to do more to help a vulnerable group of people who risked their lives serving our country.


“We have some connections where if they’re just being able to move out of a homeless shelter or on their own, we help them with furniture and clothing and that kind of stuff,” Velez said. “In this community so far, it doesn’t seem to be that bad, but I think ‘homeless’ and ‘veterans’ should never be in the same sentence, so the Elks nationally are doing everything they can to make sure that we never say that again.”


Velez has been a member of the Garden City community for two years. She moved here from a military town in Dover, Delaware, where an Air Force base is located. The town is designated as a point to which the remains of soldiers killed overseas are sent to be reunited with mourning families. 


Velez said she has been in the Elks for 17 years. Women were first allowed to join the fraternal organization in 1994, when a single-sex tradition maintained since 1868 was broken in the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks to foster greater inclusiveness. Since the Garden City Elks chapter incorporated in 1921, Velez is the first woman to become a local exalted ruler in the former fraternity. 


And it may take a woman’s touch to pull off a Thanksgiving feast with 82 RSVPs, especially without an actual kitchen on the lodge’s premises. Five turkeys were cooked for the occasion — three were roasted and two were deep fried. 


Curtis Stucky, a member of the local lodge, said he served as exalted ruler as recently as 2002. He said Velez and her family did an “excellent job.”


“I’ve been in her shoes years ago, so my wife and I know what it requires,” he said. 


Stucky said advertising is a problem for the lodge, and he wishes more people had known about the dinner, and the programs offered every year, including a $50,000 scholarship for college-bound students.


Stucky has been a member of the organization for 20 years and served in the Air Force in Texas as a jet engine mechanic in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. Times have changed since then, he said, when people weren’t as proud of the service given by members of the armed forces.


“Now it’s changed,” he said. “It’s made a good turnaround, which is good, because a lot of these guys are suffering from PTSD. Our  servicemen need to be taken better care of…”


In accomplishing that, the Elks brought their Thanksgiving generosity to six community doorsteps. The families of six veterans, Velez said, will be delivered a Thanksgiving dinner they can enjoy in the comfort of their home. Velez explained that those six vets might be homebound for one reason or another and couldn’t make it to the dinner at the lodge. One, she said, is a double amputee, but they all have different health issues.


And for Christmas the gift will keep on giving. Velez said the Elks are going to deliver Christmas stockings to soldiers’ homes, “because a lot of them don’t even have anyone come visit, so we’re going to go spend the afternoon and do that.”


When asked if the Garden City Elks want to carry on the Thanksgiving generosity they started today, Velez said, “absolutely.” And so another community tradition has just begun.


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