When “Doc” Dentice decided to throw a holiday party for his fellow Veterans on a winter day in 1988, the former Army medic figured it was a one-shot deal.
He miscalculated by roughly three decades.
Bolstered by about 85 holiday-attired volunteers, Dentice brought his 31st annual “Christmas With the Vets” show to the Milwaukee VA Medical Center on Saturday, December 8.
“In 1988, we thought we’d do a little cheer here and get the heck out here. One and done,” said Dentice, who almost nobody calls by his given name of Jeff. “When I leave here after this one – since I didn’t quit at 30 like I was going to, but people said stay – so, my goal is to try and get to 35 and then I’m out of here because I’ll be 75.”
The event featured mountains of door prizes, including stacks of new clothes, with enough for every Veteran. A hotly-contested bingo contest included more prizes, and table after table was piled high with food. Emerson Bengtson, a young pianist in a Santa hat, provided a festive background, and the Trinity Irish Dancers, making their 20th appearance at “Christmas With the Vets,” enlivened the audience with their syncopated routines.
To gather the donated items, Dentice and three other Vietnam Veterans drove roughly 2,200 miles throughout southeastern Wisconsin, much of it in less than a week.
But there’s a good reason for the effort, said Dentice, who could barely slow down long enough to talk.
“Most of all, they feel good because somebody does care,” he said. “They get a Christmas when they never thought they’d have one.”
About 160 Veterans filled the third-floor recreation hall, while another 95 Veterans who were less ambulatory, were treated to the same festivities in a smaller show in the ninth-floor dining room.
“Excellent day, man, this has been super,” said Mike Seidler, a 65-year-old Army Veteran. “First time here. I’ve been blessed to come in get some help and steer me right. I’d heard about this before, but the guy goes out of his way to put this on.”
Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, Wisconsin’s Adjutant General and commander of the Wisconsin National Guard, was among those who stopped by simply to offer support.
‘Wearing the cloth of our country is not an easy thing to do,” Dunbar said. “So anybody who did, whether they served for a couple of months or served for 40 years, is worthy of our respect and appreciation. There’s a family aspect to it, whether here in Milwaukee or across Wisconsin or across the country.”
“It’s a privilege to come down and not do anything officially, but just to say hello and say thank you.”
Dr. Daniel Zomchek, director of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, donned a pair of antlers to get into the spirit of the event
“This is just a great event for our Veterans,” Zomchek said. “We get to have all of our in-patient Veterans really taken care of right here on campus. Many of them don’t get Christmases. They don’t have a family maybe locally in the area, so being able to celebrate here right on our campus in a Veteran-centric way is very unique. Doc just does an amazing job.”
Sue Winscher, who served six years in the Navy, was attending her eighth or ninth “Christmas With the Vets” show.
“I like the camaraderie, although I don’t know as many of them these days,” said Winscher, who referred to her age as “34 doubled, plus five.” “But, it’s a really good thing. Doc is like a freight train once he gets rolling.”
Although the room already was abuzz with collective excitement, the energy level rose another notch when the Trinity Irish Dancers took the stage. Watching the troupe perform for the Veterans had special meaning for Lynne Briggs, who served as MC during the performance, and whose youngest daughter was performing.
“My dad was World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, in the Air Force,” she said. “My husband, who just walked by, was Army, and my daughter is in the Air Force.
Throughout it all, even before the doors opened, the volunteers worked non-stop, moving from task to task. An assembly line of volunteers filled the ditty bags. They carried two door prizes after each ticket was drawn so Veterans would not have to get up and they would have a choice of prizes.
Most importantly, they took the time to chat with and connect with the Veterans.
“On behalf of me and the volunteers and the whole crew, we love you guys,” Dentice said. “All of my volunteers, because there’s a ton of them this year upstairs and down, thank God I have them because, without them, there’s no show. That’s the bottom line.”
Zomchek is on board with Dentice’s commitment to continuing the annual show, although there seemed to be some confusion about the math.
“This is 31 years Doc has been doing this,” Zomchek said. “I learned that last year he was considering hanging it up because he’s been doing it for so long. Fortunately, I think we got all excited last year and convinced him to do it again this year. So he’s up for 35 years.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Doc was off by about three decades.