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Veterans center hosts first hot dog lunch in Citrus Heights, after months of lockdown

Manuel Saetes, now in his nineties, points to where he is in a copy of a photograph taken at Ohama Beach, three days after D-Day. // Mike Hazlip

By Mike Hazlip–
World War II veteran Manuel Saetes, now in his nineties, sits outside the Citrus Heights Veterans Community Center at a folding table with his fellow veterans, sharing stories of their service, talking politics, and reminiscing over hot dogs and potato salad.

Saetes is wearing a WWII Veteran hat, a shirt with red, white and blue fireworks, and a red and white striped tie which he says only comes out once a year for 4th of July. He’s holding an envelope with some CDs, copies of news articles, and a copy of a photo taken of him at Ohama Beach three days after D-Day in 1944.

The Citrus Heights Veterans Community Center along Sylvan Road had its first hot dog lunch since the COVID-19 shutdown began more than four months ago.

The small, volunteer-run nonprofit has built a loyal following of veterans from all service branches, and meets in the 1862 Sylvan School house on Sylvan Road. Weekly events are usually held for veterans to congregate and share stories, memories, and access services, but the center had to close its doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to its guests, many of whom are elderly and in the high risk category.

Volunteers at the July 2 lunch wore masks and gloves as they served guests in an outdoor patio. Tables were placed six feet apart, and there was an outdoor sink for hand washing near the patio’s entrance.

“This is family,” Saetes said of his fellow veterans at the center.

“When my wife passed away, my oldest daughter heard about this place,” he said. “I live alone, she said here’s a little place for veterans. So she brought me here, and I’ve been coming here ever since.”

Volunteers serve veterans at the first hot dog lunch since the center had to close due to COVID-19 saftey measures. // Mike Hazlip

That was three years ago, and according to volunteer Vince Robles, Saetes was excited to be able to come back to Thursday’s hot dog lunch.

Saetes still drives and provides transportation to the center for fellow WWII veteran John Chavez.

Another veteran attending the lunch, Bruce Thomas, said the center gives former military service members a way to connect over shared experiences.

“The great thing about this place is the veterans,” said Thomas. “Especially those who have been in war, (who) have a hard time talking to civilians about their experiences.”

Thomas added that military experience is very different from civilian life, even for those who have not seen combat. He recalled one veteran who remained unspoken until his third or fourth visit, saying it took him a while “to feel comfortable talking about his experiences.”

“Most of the time they understand what you’re talking about,” he said. “There’s always somebody here that’s done some of the same things you have.”

Volunteers said the center didn’t plan any events to celebrate the Fourth of July this year, citing concerns over the pandemic. The July 2 event was also the “first and last” lunch, pending new health orders, according to a post on the center’s Facebook page.

Asked about the meaning behind the July 4th holiday, Saetes said he was saddened by a lack of patriotic displays of the American flag.

“Fourth of July is the nation’s birthday,” Saetes said. “If you go around the block, I will bet you, there won’t be 10 flags on display. And that is sad.”

He added that he feels the younger generation doesn’t appreciate the contributions of previous generations, noting recent examples of removing statues.

“They’re destroying history by knocking down the statues,” he said. “They don’t realize that every one of those statues has a story behind it.”

Saetes said his best Independence Day memories are spending time with his kids watching fireworks at the fairgrounds. He said his job at the railroad took him away from his family often.

These days, his memories are kept alive through visits to the Veterans Center for various events and social gatherings.

“One laugh or one smile is better than all the pills the doctor can give you,” he said.

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