?Breakfast brotherhood: Vietnam vets are there for each other

By Masaki Sugimoto

WHITEHALL, Penn. — The sounds from the back room of the restaurant are the clink of forks into breakfast plates and the steady murmur of conversation. Rising above it all is hearty laughter.

There are about two dozen of them. They are men at peace.

Decades ago, however, they were men at war. Young men — some volunteers, some draftees — in the jungles of Vietnam, fighting for freedom and fighting for their lives.

Most Thursday mornings, these members of Vietnam Veterans Inc. gather at Gianna Via’s Restaurant in a shopping center in Whitehall. They have coffee and eggs, pancakes and bacon.

They represent every branch of the military service, and they had very different duties. Some have medals; all have memories.

“It’s like a family sitting down to dinner. They’re just glad to see each other,” said Robert “Butchie” Burke, 71, who started the weekly breakfasts last year. “You ought to see these guys when they come in. It’s only been a week, but it’s like they haven’t seen each other for 20 months. They shake hands and hug.”

The get-togethers are an outgrowth of Vietnam Veterans Inc., a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit started in 1981 with the purpose of supporting veterans who served “in-country” in Vietnam. With some 500 members, they march in parades, they maintain monuments, and they visit the VA hospital in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.

And they have each other’s backs.

“These breakfasts used to be once a month, but the guys wanted to do it more,” said VVI President Pat Ferris, 72, who was a sergeant in the Air Force. “It just keeps growing.”

Most of the guys wear black T-shirts and ball caps proudly proclaiming them as Vietnam veterans. They come from all over the county to share what amounts to little more than an hour together.

A sound you won’t hear much of is war stories.

“When Vietnam veterans get together, they don’t have to say nothing to each other. They know,” said Burke, a former Army sergeant who is vice president of the VVI.

“This is a great group,” said John Weinheimer, 69, who served with the Marines during the Tet Offensive in 1968. He is one of the younger members.

“I was just diagnosed with (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) five years ago. I was in denial. My wife has been telling me, my kids have been telling me for 40-some years that I needed help.

“This is the group that saved me because they got me to realize that it isn’t a shame to have it. I’m not a weak person because I have it. And if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where I’d be.”

On Mondays, Weinheimer and some of the others take coffee and donuts to the patients at the VA Hospital.

“I pay it forward,” he said. “I try to talk with some of the veterans that are still in denial. You know, in the Marine Corps, that’s the way it is. ‘Suck it up and move on.’ But there are things. … Heavy drinking. Anger issues.”

As important as the breakfasts have become, the outreach is a priority.

“Too many veterans don’t understand that there are other veterans out there looking for them,” Burke said. “We was all together. We was one team. We did what was asked of us.”