There’s a group in Centreville that’s been gathering weekly for a late morning coffee break and social hour centered around a single loosely enforced qualification. It’s a fun, laid-back hang with a group of interesting characters from diverse backgrounds who all have at least one thing in common: they’ve served in our nation’s armed forces, serve those who have, or just want to show their support.
Fred McNeil, a U.S. Army vet, retired teacher and coach, and longtime Centreville civic booster, likes to invite potential new recruits to the group to “Come have a cup of joe with G.I. Joe.”
The group is an offshoot of a Veterans Book that meets at the Centreville branch of the Queen Anne’s County library. Supported in part by a federal grant, the book club meets the second Tuesday of every month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. and aims to bring vets of all eras, ranks, branch, and length of service together to talk about their military and post-service experiences while providing, according to the mission statement, “an informal, supportive environment through works of literature.”
Diving in to both military fiction and nonfiction, the books that the group members read and talk about range from classic war stories to contemporary accounts of struggling with PTSD. McNeil, the moderator of this group, has seen firsthand that the material chosen can prompt therapeutical discussion by bringing up “closed off memories and emotions that are tough to share, particularly with those who haven’t experienced anything like it.”
Bob Nilsson, a Vietnam-era Marine who lives in Symphony Village, heard about the start of the Veterans Book Club, signed up at the library, went to the first meeting, and even though he didn’t know anyone there he was impressed by the group’s motivating goals and fellowship.
Six months into the book club, a desire among attendees to get together more often led to the weekly Veterans Café. They landed at the Centreville Dunkin Donuts where they meet every Monday from 11 a.m. to noon.
“It’s grown like wildfire,” says Nilsson. “Started out with a handful, now we get over a dozen vets almost every week, sometimes 20 or more. We talk and share stories. It’s an opportunity to socialize. Conversation and camaraderie – there’s no agenda, no leaders, no membership, no dues, no application necessary, and just three rules: no religion, no politics, and no rank. It’s just friendship.”
“Really,” he says, “anybody can come. Vets, their caregivers, relatives of people who served, people who just want to learn more about the experiences of veterans, but primarily we just want to provide a safe place for these vets to discuss their experiences openly with people who can relate and maybe help when and how we can.”
Helping vets is something Nilsson knows about. After his USMC stint, Nilsson made a career in the international construction business, traveling the world to manage massively complex projects. During the Gulf War, he began making trips to Bethesda Naval Hospital to visit veterans. These early trips led to over 4,000 visits over 20 years, which in turn resulted in his non-profit organization, the 100 Entrepreneurs Project which mentors and supports vets looking to start their own business. Nilsson utilizes his business connections to bring veterans and mentors together and to help companies understand the importance of supporting the veteran community.
Nilsson also stresses the importance of supporting veterans caregivers. He says, “Caregivers who have a loved one who was severely injured during their service may have to provide not only the care of that loved one but an income to maintain all aspects of their lives. We want to give those caregivers the emotional support and understanding that there are others who know what they’re going through. They’re a huge part of this effort and we want to support them as well as the veterans in their care.”
Regarding efforts to assist veterans through these social opportunities, Fred McNeil says, “Most people who have served get out, go along with their lives and maybe never even need the VA benefits due them, but there are veterans out there who need help. There are over 3,000 vets in Queen Anne’s County. Under the umbrella of the Centreville Veterans Information Center or CVIC, which helps support all these endeavors, our goal for this year is to make personal contact with at least 10% of those people. Some of these folks might be dealing with all kinds of personal issues – limited income, isolation and loneliness, malnutrition, physical and mental health difficulties, housing and transportation problems, and technological challenges like access to computers and internet.”
“Social media is one of the keys,” adds Bob Nilsson. “A majority of vets are over 65. We should educate older people in how the internet can keep them connected to friends and family, but also to meet new people who they have so much in common with or who may be able to help satisfy some of their specific needs. Some of our members might be entitled to pensions. To collect, they wouldn’t know how to begin navigating the online bureaucratic hurdles that can be so frustrating. We want to help them fix that.”
“We want to assist our fellow vets,” says McNeil, “and as a group, we’ll work with existing service organizations, auxiliaries, the VA, whoever can help the vet get what they need.”
The Monday get-together in particular has opened lines of communication and established relationships with others outside the world of service vets. For instance, the vets have bonded with the Dunkin employees. Nilsson says, “I believe that interacting with those of us who have been in the military helps put a real face to some things they might have only heard about, if that. History is right here. Right in their own backyard. And we’ve grown close to the people who work there. We think the world of them.”
The lovefest is mutual. Of the vets group, Dunkin manager Denae ‘Dee’ Green says, “They’re amazing. They’re so positive and they brighten everything up. Every time I see them it makes me smile. I wish they could come in every day.”
On the Monday I sat in with the group, a message about the Veterans Café from Dunkin corporate senior management was being passed around. “This is fantastic,” it read. “Thanks for sharing – I’ll make sure the local restaurant team sees this and is recognized. Love that Dunkin can play such a role.”
Random customers get in on the fun too. They buy gift cards for the group or rounds of coffee or donuts by the dozen. The good vibes are palatable.
CVIC has also initiated other efforts to serve local vets. A boat trip is planned as are field trips to the Washington D.C. war memorials and the Air Force Museum in Dover. There’s a glee club starting that will go to hospices and other facilities and sing for their patients and also attend events to sing the national anthem.
Thank You For Serving, viewable on QACTV & YouTube, are half hour episodes released every two weeks with McNeil taking some time to introduce a veteran to the community and share their experiences. Seeing the faces and hearing the stories of the servicemen and women who have lived them, “Lets the community know there are people who have sacrificed a part of their own lives for the sake of others,” says McNeil. “They’re not asking for anything. They just want you to know they’re there.” Those interviews will be forwarded to the Library of Congress for their collection.
“Also,” says McNeil, “the military is a sister and brotherhood. Though women are always welcome in any of these groups, there are plans for a women’s veterans club in Queen Anne’s County to address more specifically the needs and concerns of female vets.
“It’s past time to organize area vets in an organic way that asks nothing of them except show up,” he says. “We can’t help them if we don’t see them.
“Two veterans talking together is good. More is better.”
Drop in on a Monday Veterans Café at Dunkin or sign up for the Veterans Book Group at the Centreville Library. Contact Fred McNeil at 410-758-2850 or Bob Nilsson at [email protected] for more info regarding the Centreville Veterans Information Center. Find out more about the 100 Entrepreneurs Project on your socials and at 100entproject.com.
Brent Lewis is a native Chesapeake Bay Eastern Shoreman. He has published two nonfiction books about the region, “Remembering Kent Island: Stories from the Chesapeake” and a “History of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department.” His most recent book, “Stardust By The Bushel: Hollywood On The Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore”won a 2023 Independent Publishers award. His first novel, Bloody Point 1976, won an Honorable Mention Award at the 2015 Hollywood Book Festival. He and his wife Peggy live in Centreville, Maryland.