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Lynnwood's Heroes' Cafe, a community for veterans by veterans

caption: For Covid safety, Heroes' Cafe lunch meetings have been held outdoors, in the parking lot of New Life Church in Lynnwood, WA.
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For Covid safety, Heroes' Cafe lunch meetings have been held outdoors, in the parking lot of New Life Church in Lynnwood, WA.
KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

Every last Tuesday of the month, dozens of military veterans gather at Heroes Café in Lynnwood. Despite the name, Heroes Café is not exactly a coffee shop. The veterans can get coffee, but even more important, they get camaraderie.

Inside the kitchen at New Life Church in Lynnwood, a group of volunteers is assembling lunch. For Covid safety, lunch is served outside. On the menu today: tacos and fruit.

Army veteran and volunteer Donald Lachman is threading pieces of cantaloupe, watermelon and grapes onto skewers. Lachman says he looks forward to coming here every month. It’s like being in a time capsule that few people can appreciate.

“That whole experience, from basic training to your advance schools to deployments to whatever, you share this common language, this common cultural experience that only can occur in that setting,” Lachman said, adding that those shared memories and experiences bring them to Heroes’ Café.

“And to be able to come together and have those positive feelings, a great meal, you’re sent home with food, you get this love and attention from the Gold Star mothers, it’s really special,” he said.

Also in the kitchen is Myra Rintamaki who organizes the meals and directs fellow volunteers to make sure guests are fed, their coffee cups filled.

Rintamaki is a Gold Star mother whose son Steven, was killed in Iraq by an IED in 2004.

“It was important for me to carry on what type of mission I thought would be of value to honor his legacy,” Rintamaki said.

Gary Walderman first heard about a similar group in Wisconsin five years ago. It prompted the Air Force veteran to start one in Snohomish County. For Walderman, the impetus was more than sharing meals and fellowship.

“Back in 2016 when we were kicking this thing around the suicide rate among service members was 22 per day,” Walderman said. “We had to do something; we had to help stop this.”

Overall, the suicide rate for veterans remains high, one and a half times higher that of the general population.

Walderman says the transition from active duty back to society is difficult. There are very few people to talk with about their experience; people who would understand. They end up feeling isolated.

“When you have somebody to talk to, you can get stuff off your chest,” Walderman said. “We all know if something festers inside, it’s usually not a good outcome.”

Walderman says Heroes Café is a safe place for veterans to open up and tell their stories. Isolation isn’t the only challenge facing veterans.

“Pride, shame, guilt,” said Shannon Sessions, a Lynnwood council member who served in the first Desert Storm in the Air Force.

“As veterans, we’re the helpers. So we don’t want to ask for help,” she explained. “They’re born, raised, and trained to be the helper so they don’t want to ask for help, or at least it’s not easy to ask for help. So a place like Heroes’ Café allows them to be next to others who also need help.”

Over time, they learn to support each other, whether it’s listening, helping another vet in need, or simply being here, wherever they’re at.

caption: Gold Star mother Myra Rintamaki organizes meals at the monthly meeting of Heroes' Cafe in Lynwood, WA.
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Gold Star mother Myra Rintamaki organizes meals at the monthly meeting of Heroes' Cafe in Lynwood, WA.
Ruby de Luna / KUOW

Before lunch wraps up, the group celebrates that month’s birthdays. There’s a reason why Heroes’ Café meets toward the end of the month. For veterans on set incomes, it can be a tough time. Funds might be low and they can’t afford to buy food. So Heroes’ Café provides breakfast and lunch. And before they leave, they’re sent home with boxed up sandwiches and extra food.

When Walderman is not organizing Heroes’ Café, he’s busy collecting cold weather clothing or personal hygiene kits for donations, or helping veterans in need, whether it’s someone moving out of transitional housing, or finding a used motorized cart for someone recovering from surgery.

“It’s the little things in life, that we try to elevate their quality of living,” Walderman said. “And to make sure their quality of life is the best possible, because they served their country.”

Heroes’ Café has inspired similar efforts elsewhere in the region. There’s a Heroes’ Café in Shoreline. In Edmonds, there’s a program called “Got Your Six,” from the military phrase that means “I’ve got your back.” Just like they did while in service, it's military veterans looking out for other veterans.

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