In a sea of blue jeans and T-shirts, Benjamin Campbell arrived at Nichols Chapel AME Church in a dapper suit, silver silk necktie and patent leather shoes. It was, after all, Thanksgiving dinner.
Campbell, who served in World War II, was among 60 or so veterans who dined Tuesday on a full Thanksgiving meal at the 16th annual Lowcountry Thanksgiving Turkey Giveaway.
In all, the event provided those in need with about 1,200 free turkeys and 800 gift cards worth $20 each donated by grocery stores including Bi-Lo, Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Piggly Wiggly, Publix and Walmart.
This is the first year the event singled out veterans like Campbell for a sit-down turkey dinner.
“Why, this is very nice,” Campbell said when a church volunteer set down his plate. He was 18 when he went overseas to serve in Okinawa, Japan, Guam and Saipan in the Mariana Islands. He will turn 87 in December.
The men sitting near him, mostly Vietnam veterans who live at Crisis Ministries, nodded in vigorous agreement.
“This is very helpful when you have no finances,” said Carl Cline, a Navy veteran who suffered a stroke eight years ago. He was especially thankful for help from volunteers and companies that, despite the economic downturn, still donated turkeys and gift cards.
“It’s hard for people to reach out a helping hand if their hands are empty,” Cline said.
Veterans with mental health problems find it hard to hold jobs because of their symptoms or medication side effects. And that means constant worry about food and housing.
The free meal eased that for a day, said Maurice Johnson, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam.
“Our homeless veterans should be taken care of,” said Nichols Chapel’s pastor, the Rev. Randolph Miller. “This is Thanksgiving, and it is a time to share.”
Hundreds of families, veterans and senior citizens lined the streets outside Nichols Chapel even after nearly 600 already jammed its sanctuary to sing, give thanks and hear from organizers, including state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston; Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston; and Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston.
While organizers delivered resounding messages of thanks, Campbell quietly finished his meal and rose from the table reserved for veterans.
He eased outside with his walker, where volunteers and the crowd still waiting in line stepped aside and nodded their respects as he passed.