For Sikhs in Sonoma County, to feed veterans is to give directly to God

Annual luncheon serves up flatbread, lentil soup, rice pudding and respect for local military veterans.|

Indian cuisine is something Army veteran Joe LaFrance never tried before Tuesday, when he dug into a complimentary feast in Santa Rosa.

The buffet of chickpea-flour fritters, called pakora, with fresh mint sauce, and lentil soup, savory vegetables, yogurt, cumin rice, paratha flatbread, rice pudding and chai tea was prepared for military vets by members of the Sikh temple in Santa Rosa.

It has LaFrance, who returned from numerous tours of duty with post traumatic stress disorder, looking forward to his next Indian meal.

“It’s something new,” said the 54-year-old veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. “You get tired of eating the same food all the time.”

As he sat at a table at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building and gazed at the more than 20 local Sikhs who spent hours preparing the food and invited all veterans to come and eat their fill, LaFrance said, “It’s nice to be remembered.”

This is the 10th straight year that Sikhs wearing traditional turbans or scarves have graciously welcomed and fed veterans at a December session of Vet Connect, which each Tuesday provides a variety of services and materials to help people who served in the military.

A leader of the annual luncheon is Dr. Mandeep Nagra, an internist who studied in Punjab, India, and practices at the Veterans Administration clinic in Santa Rosa.

He said a fundamental belief of Sikhs motivates them to provide food to people in need: To feed a hungry mouth is to make a donation directly to God.

“There is nobody in between,” Nagra said. “You are closest to God if you feed a hungry person.”

A fellow member of the Santa Rosa temple, Sukhwinder Lamba, an executive with the software firm OpsHub who lost his family home to the October fires, said that at a traditional, communal Sikh meal, all are invited and all sit on the floor.

King or pauper, Lamba said, “You all sit on the same level and you eat the same food.”

Service and respect to all, he said, “is the hallmark of the Sikh community.”

The meal came as a pleasant surprise to 64-year-old Army veteran Richard Guidry, who lives in a motor home in Rohnert Park.

“I didn’t know it was going to be today,” he said. Badly injured when he was struck by a car in 2006, he came to the Veterans Building for Vet Connect and he smelled something appetizing.

“I liked the rice,” Guidry said after eating. It reminded him of one of the benefits of serving in South Korea in the 1970s. “In Korea, the rice is nice.”

Fellow veteran LaFrance also happened upon the complimentary lunch after arriving at the Vet Connect gathering to see if any former warriors might like to spend some time with his social therapy dog, Brandi, a mellow pit bull.

LaFrance said he served with the Army when he was in his late 20s and early 30s, and he re-enlisted after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

“I had to do something,” he said. “I couldn’t just sit on ?the sidelines.”

LaFrance lives with PTSD and finds that it helps to bring Brandi into Vet Connect gatherings and comfort other veterans.

“I have my ups and downs,” he said. To happen upon the Indian lunch prepared by the Sikhs was a definite up.

“I liked it all,” LaFrance said, “especially that rice pudding.”

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and

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