Breakfast Club veterans support Vietnam Wall project

St. Louis area vets and veterans groups are gearing up for the arrival of the American Veterans Traveling Tribute, or AVTT, Vietnam Wall.

From June 13 to June 16, the memorial Wall will be to the campus of Lindbergh High School, 5000 S. Lindbergh Blvd.

“I’m really excited to see that the Wall will be in the St. Louis area,” Vietnam veteran Don Aird stated in a news release. “The traveling Wall is very important to vets, especially for those who can’t get to the memorial in Washington, D.C.

“I know that some will only visit it at night, when it is private and not a lot of people are around,” Aird added. “I know a lot of us would like to see young people go to visit in the day and find out what the Wall and Vietnam was all about.”

Aird is a member of the veterans’ Breakfast Club, which meets in Fenton, and of Vietnam Veterans of America, or VVA, Chapter 1028. Aird said his breakfast buddies are all supportive of the effort to bring the AVTT Wall to St. Louis. He noted that there are more than 58,270 names of the fallen on the Wall, and many local veterans have connections to them – knew them personally.

Tom Ford is one of Aird’s VVA Chapter 1028 colleagues. He said there’s no shortage of volunteers to help with the Wall project from his chapter and from other veterans’ groups.

“Our Breakfast Club already has volunteers working on the planning,” Ford stated in the release. “We have several who will bivouac at the Wall 24-7 while it is here. We are pleased to be of service.”

The June event for St. Louis is known as the Show-Me Hero Salute. Ford serves as honor chairman on the organizing committee of the Show-Me Hero Salute.

“My job is to make sure that the Wall event follows protocol and is a dignified, memorable experience,” Ford stated. “There will be no carnival atmosphere. My philosophy is that if you can’t do it at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, you can’t do it where we will be honoring those who are remembered on the Wall.”

Although the June program for the AVTT wall will be solemn, the tenor of the local veterans’ Breakfast Club is a bit more laid back. That’s not to say it’s like a shock-jock a.m. radio show or a takeoff on the 1985 movie. This club is all about Vietnam veterans who enjoy each other’s company over some morning comfort food.

“I was one of the original three members when we started meeting about 2006,” recalled Aird, who helped get the club off the ground. The club meets every Wednesday morning at Grand Slam Bar and Grill in Fenton off Highway 30.

“We grew to the point that we now have anywhere from 60 to 90 of us getting together to eat breakfast every Wednesday,” Aird stated. “There’s no formal chapter meeting or anything, we just get together and talk and listen to each other, and share experiences.

“When I came back from Vietnam — and I think this is true of other club members — nobody wanted to hear about Vietnam or listen to what we had to say,” Aird added. “I think that’s changed. But we still find a lot of camaraderie just talking with each other about the war.”

The club started eight years ago when Russ Whitener and the late Gary Hutchison began meeting for coffee at Denny’s in Fenton. Then Aird came along and many others. They outgrew Denny’s and then outgrew Slingers restaurant and now they are packing them in at the Grand Slam, just west of Gravois Bluffs on Highway 30.

In 2009, they decided they had enough members to put together a VVA chapter. They became Chapter 1028 and they named it after Gary Hutchison, who passed away just before the chapter was officially established.

In 2013, VVA Chapter 1028 was up to almost 120 members, thus making it the second largest VVA chapter in the state. Board members are Tom Moore, president; Russ Whitener, vice president; Aird, secretary; Tom Brophy, treasurer; Tom La Zear, chaplain; Bill Biddle, parliamentarian; and Bill De Armond, trustee.

“I’ve been a regular member of the Breakfast Club for about three years and what keeps me coming back is the good that they do,” Ford stated. “The club has helped out with Wounded Warrior projects, Camp Home, Feed My People and now the American Veterans Traveling Tribute Vietnam Wall.

“I have a lot of respect for the men with the club. Some of them went through a lot in Vietnam, especially those in the artillery,” he added. “I was on an aircraft carrier. That’s not comparable to someone who was fighting ‘in country’ day after day.”

“I’ve been going to the breakfasts for two years now,” stated Biddle, who served in the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon and the 71st Evacuation Hospital and the 44th Medical Detachment in Pleiku as chief anesthetist. “It’s always been tough for me to talk about Vietnam. The club has helped me open up and talk about it.

“It was my job to help try to put guys back together again after they were hurt in combat,” Biddle added. “It was impossible to repair some of the guys we got. That has always made me feel like I never completed my job. The guys in the thick of it — I don’t know how they lasted three days, much more a year, day after day.”

Aird, Ford and Biddle will share stories of the true heroes that eat breakfast at the club, but who don’t always have much interest in talking to the news media themselves about their time in the Vietnam War.

For example, Brophy took a hill with about 200 fellow Marines — only about 75 walked down from the hill. Max Pryor was a gunner on an armored personnel carrier and was wounded several times. Some 27 members of his company are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

Moore served as a member of the famous “Die Hard” on his tour in Vietnam. He was with the 1st Engineer Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division in Bear Cat, Vietnam, in 1965. He was wounded when an RPG went off next to him, while the driver of the earth-moving vehicle on which they were riding was killed in the incident.

Although the Breakfast Club is comprised primarily of Vietnam Vets, the members would like to see vets from other wars, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, come to their morning sessions. They do have a Navy Seal, who saw action in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, coming to their Wednesday morning meetings.

“I feel very comfortable with all the Vietnam vets. A vet is a vet,” Ron White stated. “I’m the only guy in the club who saw action in Cuba. Most people don’t even know we were in Cuba. A lot of things went on in the Cold War that no one knows about to this day. The people here at the Breakfast Club can appreciate that.”

White said his breakfast buddies do appreciate the Wall project and the community appreciation reflected in the efforts of the Show-Me Hero Salute organization.

For more information about the Show-Me Hero Salute activities, contact Morris L. “Butch” Thomas, chairman, at (314) 849-2234 or by email at Morris.Thomas@att.net.