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Saying thanks with lobster for military service

Groton - For volunteer lobster chef Timothy Grills, serving up 500 free lobster dinners to active and retired military and their families on Sunday was just another big event in a food-filled summer.

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, there was the clambake at the beach at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, were Grills helped serve up 80 authentic, cooked-in-the-sand shore dinners.

Then, last weekend, it was OpSail, and for the opening night dinner, Grills fed 500 at an event in Niantic that included the crews of the Coast Guard barque Eagle and a 600-foot Navy warship.

The following night he did a lobster dinner for 250 people on New London's Waterfront Park, with a backdrop of fireworks.

Next up: A reception for 100 at home, in honor of his daughter's new master's degree.

On Sunday, Grills was busy supervising eight gas-fired boiling pots set up lakeside at the Naval Submarine Base, steaming cauldrons for which all the mussels, corn and lobsters for the day were destined.

The smell of steamed mussels wafted out over the lake beach, while music from two bands that donated their time for the afternoon filled the air.

Grills, a former New London restaurateur who is now director of nutrition services, including 1,400 meals on wheels a day, for Thames Valley Council for Community Action, was among 60 volunteers who helped serve up Sunday's lobsters.

Grills has been a part of the event since it began four years ago. The founder of the dinner - organized as an appreciation to the military - gives the chef credit for pulling it off year after year.

"He's the first person I went to when we had the idea to start this," said Sean Coleman, general manger of Grossman's Seafood of Route 184 and West Mystic, which sponsors the event.

The lobster fest, which has an appropriately military title - Operation Lobster Dinner - is also a fundraiser.

All the money raised from sponsors and donors that isn't used for food and drink goes to a local nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans go to work when they complete their time in the service.

Called Work Vessels for Veterans, it was started by John Niekrash, a lobsterman who originally had the idea of providing boats that veterans could use to start careers. But it has evolved to include cars, laptops and other things to help the transition vets to careers.

Niekrash said Sunday the lobster event has been the organization's principal fundraiser, with the total raised over the years now approaching $30,000.

Another familiar face at the annual lobster dinner tradition is U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, who, by coincidence, attended the same grammar school as Niekrash. Courtney has been at the lobster dinner every year.

On Sunday, he complimented the submarine base, which last year began providing the lake site for the dinner.

The base, Courtney suggested, is always at the front of his agenda, and not just for lobsters and military appreciation events.

"We have to fight for it every single day," he said about the base.

The speeches Sunday, which preceded the dinner bell, were very short.

In his brief moment at the microphone, Grills gave instructions on how everyone was to line up, table by table, for a trip through the lobster buffet line.

And then Operation Lobster Dinner proceeded with appropriate precision.


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