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Brandin' Iron's annual Thanksgiving meal for veterans returns Monday

Cullman Times - 11/16/2023

Nov. 16—For Cullman County veterans, Thanksgiving has gotten off to an early start with camaraderie (and scratch-made good cooking) over the past eight years — all thanks to a 2015 meeting of local minds that hatched a gesture of annual goodwill that's since grown to become a local tradition.

Every year, not long before Thanksgiving, veterans and their families (including their caretakers) gather at the Brandin' Iron steakhouse at West Point, where a spread worthy of the bounty-celebrating holiday awaits. There's turkey (of course), plus pineapple-and-brown sugar-glazed ham, complemented by table-ready side dishes including chicken and dressing, sweet potato casserole, dressed-up green beans, bread on the side and a big selection of desserts from which to choose — all of them homemade, as Brandin' Iron owner Josh Speakman points out, by "local ladies in the community."

Speakman and his restaurant provide the venue and, thanks to his original idea for the dinner eight years ago, the initial push of preparation to get the event going each year. But just like the women who volunteer their time to make those delectable desserts, it takes a lot of grateful hearts — a small army of them, in fact — to set the table for veterans to come out and enjoy each other's fellowship every Thanksgiving.

"There is something extremely special about the heroes fellowshipping together and sharing in conversation with others to whom they can relate," said Speakman, who offers his own thanks to a lengthy list of local sponsors, donors and volunteers who help make the veterans' dinner happen every year. The nearby school at West Point offers its lunchroom as a separate food preparation area, while deputies from the Cullman County Sheriff's Office carry take-out meals to veterans in their homes, to better include those ailing or aging service members who can't make the trip out to the Brandin' Iron.

For meat-and-fixins lovers, the Brandin' Iron always has been a popular spot. But on the day of the event, it's a veritable hive of swarming activity, packed to the doors (and beyond) with local veterans, their families, deputies who've signed on for food-delivery duty, friends stopping by to share a thank you or two, and, of course, a busy restaurant staff and event volunteers who make sure the tea keeps flowing and the food comes out fresh.

Restaurant regulars might know the place inside and out, but the Brandin' Iron takes on a whole different look and feel on dinner day: Speakman and the staff go all-in on transforming the dining area into a patriotic place, hanging American flags alongside colorful artwork and posters made by local elementary school students. High schoolers write personal letters expressing gratitude for the freedom they enjoy thanks to local veterans' sacrifice, and each veteran leaves with a piece of the artwork, as well as one of the letters, as tangible reminders that their service has resonated across generations.

Preparing the food, coordinating volunteers and staff, and getting the restaurant ready before the first plate is served: It's a sizable outlay of effort and resources, but Speakman says there's always a ton of community momentum behind the event.

"I generally start promotions in early August, and then the core team will meet in mid-September," he said. "From that point, the promotional team will keep in contact weekly, and the cooking team will begin meeting every year at the beginning of November."

With the dinner's Nov. 20 date approaching, it's the cooking team who's on deck now — and Speakman says there's plenty of room for new volunteers. On Saturday, Nov. 18, the team will meet at the West Point High School lunchroom to begin preparing side dishes, and if you feel like helping out, all you have to do is show up anytime between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. "There are also a few positions during the event itself, and we always welcome fresh volunteers at the end of the event as well to help clean up," he said.

A few things to note about getting a meal delivered to a veteran at home on the day of the dinner: Any area veteran who is homebound or has difficulties with mobility can have their meal delivered by a Cullman County sheriff's deputy, a measure Speakman says helps assure homebound vets that "the knock at the their door is a friendly uniformed deputy and not someone they don't recognize."

Veterans, their spouses, and their caretakers are eligible for at-home delivery, but it's important to let the restaurant know in advance: Saturday, Nov. 18 is the deadline to request a meal delivery at home; requests can be made by calling the restaurant at 256-739-1112 and leaving your name, address, phone number, and the number of plates that will need to be delivered.

Speakman insists on thanking all the local organizations and people who've helped shape the veterans' Thanksgiving dinner at the Brandin' Iron into a yearly celebration that veterans can look forward to. "I refer to all the compassionate and amazing folks who've helped out as the 'hometeam network,' which is just a group of generous, like-minded people who are committed to building a strong community through service," he says.

To learn more about getting involved in the dinner as either a sponsor or volunteer (or both), contact Speakman at 256-736-3814. Donations made to the event via the Cullman VFW Post 2214 are tax deductible.

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by phone at 256-734-2131 ext. 234.

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