BILLINGS — Warrior Wishes of Montana (website) provided more than 700 Thanksgiving meals to military veterans on Tuesday during its annual Vetsgiving event.
Miguel Gonzalez, the founder of Warrior Wishes, said he hopes this event, alongside the other efforts of his organization, will lower the rate of veteran suicides.
"I've lost several friends to veteran suicide ... It's something that I will never forget because I can't forget," said Gonzalez.
Warrior Wishes was founded after he retired from a career as a deputy sheriff and was medically retired from the military.
This year's Vetsgiving event, held at the VFWs in Billings, offered trays of turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberries, breads, and pies among other Thanksgiving delectables in exchange for proof of service.
“I’m appreciative of it because when we came back we weren’t appreciated. We came back from Vietnam; we weren’t appreciated at all," said Jerry Hudson, a Vietnam War veteran and post commander for VFW Post 1634 in Billings.
The Vetsgiving tradition began after Gonzalez had spent time reflecting on a memory from 2007 where he was in danger of being bombed while deployed in Iraq.
"The only thing I had available to me at the time was a sleeve of crackers and a bottled water, and that's what I had for Thanksgiving, 2007," said Gonzalez while explaining his desire to serve his community.
Volunteers said they feel the warm meals are only half of what veterans appreciate about Vetsgiving.
''They all just want to have a conversation; that’s probably the biggest thing. People, you know, get locked up in their house and don’t get out very often, or don’t have confidence to talk to others," said Bryan Ragsdale, a Vetsgiving volunteer.
Many veterans are apprehensive about asking for assistance because they perceive it as a failure or weakness, according to members of Warrior Wishes. They said this is a falsehood they hope to help others overcome.
"I've lost relationships. I've lost jobs. I've had issues throughout that 20 years that I could have alleviated if I just reached out and said, 'I need help,'" said Grey Rodriguez, a veteran and the president of Warrior Wishes.
The organization provides various assistance including rent coverage, automotive coverage, and mental health resource connection.
"We’re taking away those moments of desperation and that ‘rock bottom.’ There’s someone there to kind of help pull them out of that," said Alexander Roth, a Warrior Wishes board member.
Veterans are able to apply online for grants up to $500 with higher amounts considered in "extenuating circumstances."
It does not, however, take the efforts of an organization or a major donation of time to make a big difference in a veteran's life, according to Hudson.
“If you feel like helping a veteran, thank ‘em, but also, give a hand out. Maybe they need a ride somewhere, maybe they need some gas money, maybe they need food money. Help us out [by helping] a veteran out," said Hudson.