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‘A lot of veterans are hurting:’ NC groups give free Christmas meals to those who served

Triangle Veterans Wellness Outreach Center (Released)

Veterans in Durham who’ve struggled to get through the coronavirus pandemic are turning to each other for help to get through the holiday season.

The Triangle Veterans Wellness Outreach Center and a local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans teamed up Saturday to hand out free turkeys and hams to U.S. military veterans. The opportunity to ensure their families could have a Christmas meal brought out a steady stream of grateful former service members.

“I’m a disabled vet so we’re on a limited fixed income,” said Antionette Milligan-Barnes, 69, a retired U.S. Air Force captain and nurse who lives in Durham. “They’re helping us with Christmas meals, giving out turkeys and hams and I thought, ‘God, thank you.’ I got a ham so I can prepare a nice Christmas meal for my family.”

Due to the pandemic, Milligan-Barnes said she will cook the food and deliver it to other people’s houses instead of having a large celebration.

The meal giveaway comes at the end of a hard year for Americans dealing with the effects of the pandemic. More people are experiencing hunger in the Triangle, North Carolina and nationally.

The Durham Community Food Pantry has gone from serving about 1,000 people a month before COVID-19 to now about 5,000 people a month, The News & Observer reported. The group says many of them are people who’ve never had to seek out food assistance before.

The Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina has seen 250,000 more people this year than last year, a 38% increase.

Pandemic problems for veterans

The pandemic has been especially hard on disabled veterans, according to Ronald Allen, service officer for Chapter 21 of Disabled American Veterans. Allen, a retired U.S. Air Force senior master sergeant, said the Veterans Administration has canceled many non-emergency medical appointments.

Even when veterans can see their doctors, Allen said it’s often through telemedicine.

James Alston helps veterans apply for benefits as a claims agent. But Alston, who is founder of the Triangle Veterans Wellness Outreach Center and commander of DAV Chapter 21, says it’s taking longer now to process claims since many VA employees are working from home.

“A lot of veterans are hurting in Durham,” said Alston, 73, a retired U.S. Army master sergeant living in Durham. “I’m not saying that we don’t get support, but sometimes we could get a lot more support. It’s something I know is needed.”

Richard Latta, 64, a former U.S. Army private living in Durham, said his veterans’ disability claim is on hold. It’s why he says events such as Saturday’s meal giveaway are a help.

“It saves you from buying your own turkey,” Latta said. “It helps people. That’s the bottom line.”

Alston is hoping things, such as processing VA claims, will speed up now that COVID-19 vaccines have been approved.

Milligan-Barnes, the retired Air Force nurse, is doing her part to encourage people to get vaccinated. That includes her daughter, who works in a COVID-19 hospital unit.

“The risk is not if you get (COVID-19), but when you get it,” Milligan-Barnes said. “The benefit of (the vaccine) is you’re going to probably get (the virus) and you’ll have some immunity. The risk is if you don’t get it you’re going to die.”

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