* Who: Chattanooga Vet Center
* What: Seeking donations of nonperishable food items, new toys for children infant to teen, store gift cards
* When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday until Dec. 13
* Where: Drop off: Chattanooga Vet Center, 951 Eastgate Loop Road, Chattanooga
* For more information: Call 423-855-6570
She served four years in the U.S. Army and went back to civilian life in the early 1980s.
She worked and raised a family, but a lingering knee injury from her time in the military and other health problems piled up.
Last year, the 52-year-old Cleveland, Tenn., woman had three boys living at home. She was the only one bringing in a paycheck and she couldn't work anymore. She'd applied for disability but hadn't been approved.
Christmas was coming and she wasn't certain what they would do.
"It bothers you because you're trying to think, 'Where are you going to find the next meal?'" she said.
But then the woman, who asked that her name not be used, learned that the Chattanooga Vet Center was reaching out to help veterans in need over the holidays.
Something as simple as a box of canned foods and gift cards, donated during the center's drive, made all the difference.
"They was happy about it," she said. The veteran didn't hide where the help came from, though. She said she wants her boys, now in college, to know so that they'll be grateful and help others in the future.
This is at least the sixth year that the veterans center has collected donated food and gift cards, said Phil Elliott, one of the center's counselors.
A major past donor has had ongoing health problems, so as of this past week the center had received only one box, he said.
The need is great, he said. The center aims to assist at least 15 area veteran families. Ideally each family should have enough nonperishable food items for a Christmas dinner, toys if there are children in need and some gift cards to help out with gas, he said.
More and more of those the center helps are veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Elliott said.
A March study by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University showed that 10 percent of post-9/11 veterans were unemployed, compared to a national unemployment rate of 7 percent.
"For us here it's just always been a phenomenal way to start the holiday seasons," Elliott said. "And seeing the children who sometimes come in with the parents, it's pretty amazing to see the smiles on their faces."
The counselors help combat veterans who qualify for therapies at the center. Often the small group reaches out to the larger veteran community through social activities and conflict-specific therapy groups.
But Elliott said giving to needy veteran families during the holidays is a special way residents can help.
"These veterans, who have signed on the dotted line and written the blank check to our country, up to and including their life, understand sacrifice and service," Elliott said. "I would hope that no veteran or family member goes hungry and that every child of these veterans has a gift under the tree for Christmas."
The Cleveland veteran helped last year agrees.
"I would like to encourage everybody to give if they can," the woman said. "Because you don't know when you're going to be in need."
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.