Fresh doughnuts, pastries, coffee and juice adorned a table in the large, quiet and empty dayroom. A row of patio doors filled one side, allowing gentle breezes and rays of sunlight that created soft highlights on the long conference tables and chairs that ran parallel to them.
One by one, they entered the room - some wheeling or motoring themselves in, some walking in with the aid of canes - and greeted the youthful, reverent faces of Soldiers, who with each act of kindness and measure of care would bring in a breath of fresh air and sunshine all of their own.
The Soldiers, all members of Fort Lee's Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program, were greeting the elderly veterans in residence at the Sitter and Barfoot Veterans Care Center in Richmond during a visit there Tuesday.
BOSS participants have been making monthly visits to the 160-room facility for the past six months as part of its community outreach program. Each and every visit, said 1st Sgt. David Faughnan, is a gesture of gratitude for those who laid the groundwork for today's military.
"We owe it to the generation before us," said the Medical Department Activity Soldier. "We owe them patronage for going before us and doing what they did."
The veterans in the state-run facility represent all branches of the military, and many were participants in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Wheelchair-bound Robert Brooks, a 22-year veteran of the Navy, was the first resident to enter the room. Attired in a white polo shirt and wearing a scowl that opposed his friendly manner, he greeted the Soldiers and thanked them for their presence. Brooks said his fellow residents look forward to the visits.
"They like the interactions," said Brooks, president of the residence hall. "We play cards and bingo. They love it."
Moments later, a few low-key conversations turned into an audible chatter highlighted by outbursts of laughter as the room rose to life with an unmistakable vibe and energy. Most of the Soldiers had connected with the residents and were either engaging in a one-on-one conversation or participating in a card or board game.
Spc. Ashley Brooks, a first-timer from MEDDAC, was playing a friendly game of poker with Joe Moomau, a Vietnam veteran. Brooks occasionally flashed her braces-adorned smile after each of her playing partner's well-executed quips. She was clearly enjoying the moment. Afterward, she said she learned something about sacrifice.
"There was a lot of wisdom in him and his experiences in Vietnam," said Brooks, noting she plans to tag along on the next visit.
Pvt. Derek Merritts, also a first-timer and one of two Soldiers in the group wearing the Army Combat Uniform, seemed to work his way to a comfort level with his newfound friends. He was one of three Soldiers and two residents involved in a lightly contentious card game.
"Coming out and seeing their smiling faces kind of lights that fire in the heart, you know," he said. "It makes you feel nice, warm and fuzzy."
Merritts showed his good humor as he issued this warning about the resident card players:
"Watch out," he said. "These guys are great at playing cards; they'll take your money."
Of course, no money was exchanged but fair amounts of goodwill and mutual respect were. Sandra Ranicki, the facility's administrator, said the visits provide residents, many of whom are in their 70s and 80s, the means to share their commonalities with the Soldiers, most of whom are young enough to be their great grandkids.
"It gives them the opportunity to talk with someone who is probably interested in their histories since these are active duty Soldiers themselves," she said, "so they'll often open up and tell stories about their pasts in the military that perhaps they don't share with others."
That exchange bridges the perceived generational divide, said Faughnan.
"It's phenomenal to see the younger generation coming down to learn from the military that served before us," he said. "It gives them an idea about what tradition is about in the military and an understanding of what those before us did so we can continue on and give it to the younger Soldiers."
The visit lasted about 90 minutes. The residents said their goodbyes and one-by-one, filed out of the dayroom. A few conversations lingered. Ranicki was grateful to the Soldiers for taking the time to honor the residents.
"It has been a wonderful experience," she said, "and we love having them come as often as possible."
For more details about the visits and the BOSS program, call (804) 734-6824.