They were Armed with stories of valor and sacrifice.
They brought memories — of friends lost, wounds suffered and battles won.
They arrived, some on unsteady legs, with chests out, chins high and shoulders squared, eager to break bread with brothers and enjoy the bond that only soldiers know.
They came to Hy-Vee. They came for breakfast.
“This is a really special thing, because you see a guy from Vietnam sitting there eating with a guy from World War ll. And you just don’t know what they might have gone through,” Tim Fogle, a former Air Force mechanic, said as he scanned the dining room at the Hy-Vee on Fleur Drive in Des Moines.
Fogle was among an estimated 500 military veterans from all branches of service who came to the south-side store Monday for Hy-Vee’s annual Veterans Day Breakfast. The buffet included smiles and appreciation along with traditional morning fare. Crews across Hy-Vee Land expected to serve more than 80,000 free meals to vets and their spouses in what has become a traditional eight-state salute to those who served. Stores honored their guests with music, flag dedications, handmade cards from local school kids, handshakes and the occasional slap on the back. An Abe Lincoln re-enactor even stopped by the Fleur store to deliver the Gettysburg Address.
Some of those honored, like Fogle, served in peacetime. Others, like Gail Fitch of Ankeny, weren’t so lucky.
Fitch was waiting in the cold, dark parking lot outside the East Euclid Avenue store 15 minutes before the doors opened for breakfast. The first steaming plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits and gravy would be his.
“I came from a family of 14 kids,” he said, as if that was explanation enough for why he gets to the table early at mealtime.
Fitch, a southern Iowa native, spent his 17th birthday on a ship somewhere between his boyhood home of Leon and Busan, South Korea, where he would become a man. His mother had signed papers that let him enlist early. He yearned for the adventure, he says, even if he was unprepared for dodging machine gun fire in a snake-infested rice paddy with the stench of death in his nostrils.
“I spent 14 months in Korea; eight on the front lines,” Fitch said. “People think Korea wasn’t bad. It was.”
Fitch chewed on a strip of bacon Monday and searched the room for anyone wearing a cap, jacket or patch with “Korea” on it. Seeing none, he dabbed his lips and prepared to head back out into the cold. Then a man with a sand-colored hat inscribed with “Vietnam, 1970-‘71” sat down with a tray. Coffee cups were topped off, and two men from different eras fell into a conversation using the acronym-laden language of war.
It’s a language Lyle Colligan still knows well, 68 years after he stood victorious at Iwo Jima with the rest of the 28th Marine Corps in what historians say was a pivotal point in World War ll. Beside Colligan was Larry Ingvall, an Army vet who survived a tour in Vietnam but lost his legs to diabetes when he got home. The two men met at a senior center and became friends. On Monday, they brought their friendship to Hy-Vee and swapped battlefield stories with several other men huddled around steaming coffee at a few small tables. Bursts of laughter punctuated the overlapping exchanges.
“Veterans Day is always somewhat emotional. But it is also one of the few times all of us vets get together and enjoy the camaraderie of having served. I was in the Army and here I am sitting next to a guy in the Navy listening to his stories,” said John Vanderhaar, 65, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as a combat medic.
“When I got out of the service, you weren’t welcomed like a hero. We didn’t have things like this” breakfast,” he said. “Nowadays, the patriotism and the gratitude from people are overwhelming.”
World War ll veteran Dante Fresco, 88, agreed. He meets regularly with buddies for coffee at the Fleur Drive store but says the Veterans Day breakfasts are special.
“This really is a great thing that Hy-Vee does,” he said to the others at his table. “It really is.”
He didn’t need to tell John Brock, 85, who served in the Coast Guard during World War II and, along with Colligan, was on the inaugural Central Iowa Honor Flight in 2009.
The breakfasts are “so wonderful just like the Honor Flight,” he said. “When you stop and think what Hy-Vee does for veterans, it is very humbling.”