The way we war 

Lessons learned at breakfast with the vets

Wars and breakfasts have a way of bringing people together. And on a drizzly Veterans Day, Nov. 11, the handful of hot breakfasts offered for free around town to veterans are especially warming. After the homemade biscuits and gravy, coffee and eggs have had a chance to settle, there will be an 11 a.m. wreath-laying ceremony downtown. Veterans, their loved ones and others compelled to honor both will stand together, shivering and sniffling from cold and emotion. Beneath a low, ashen sky, speeches and songs will echo off the county courthouse as Missoula comes together to celebrate and grieve their troops.

But the day begins, as most days do, with breakfast. At the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 209 (VFW), veterans eat ham and eggs, toast, hashbrowns and coffee cooked up by the Ladies Auxiliary. One table, in particular, stands out. Five members of the Missoula chapter of Combat Veterans International sit together, wearing matching black leather vests covered with colorful sewn-on patches. One yellow patch, embroidered with the number "20," honors the Montana soldiers who've been declared missing in action. To join the group, veterans must prove two things: that they served in a combat zone, and that they ride motorcycles.

"We just try to ride for those that don't come back to ride again," says Jim Berard, 59, a Vietnam War veteran.

Breakfast is just one piece of a daylong tradition for the group. All present have taken the day off of work and scheduled it around Veterans Day activities. They'll attend the courthouse ceremony together; they'll also spend time at the veterans' memorial in Rose Park; and they'll visit the grave of Josh Hyland, a Missoula soldier killed in August.

"There's a lot of holidays that people put a lot more effort and advertising into, but Veterans Day is important," Berard says. "There's been a lot of blood spilled and we can't forget that."

Proud, earnest and dedicated to service, Berard and company fit the veteran archetype. There are other molds, though. Korean War vets, distinguished by their wrinkles, drink coffee with their wives. A scattered handful of loner vets chow down, seemingly oblivious to the social side of the meal. One of these men, Bob Perice, eats and then moves onto the next free breakfast on his list at the 3:16 Rescue Mission, where biscuits and gravy are being cooked up for homeless and needy vets.

The mission's atmosphere is unmistakably different from that at the VFW. For one thing, the men are younger and their clothes are older. They don't wear patches and hats boasting their status as veterans. Perice says he's never paid Veterans Day much mind, though he does want to see the troops come home. He tells me I ought to join up, saying it would be a perfect fit if I can handle hard work. A few seats over, Jim Smith interrupts, saying I should join up only if I can handle seeing my best friend's brains blown out into my lap.

He rolls a cigarette before standing up and walking away, and I follow.

Outside, Smith, 54, tells me he served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, before being shot in the leg and sent home. He says he hasn't talked about his war experiences in years, and that he stumbled into the free breakfast at the mission, where he usually warms up with a cup of coffee each morning after camping outside of town. This is his seventh winter in Missoula, and though he travels around working odd jobs, he says, he always comes back because the town has gotten into his blood.

The fact that he's a veteran doesn't mean much, he says, and he refuses to use it as an excuse for his lot in life.

"If I had never went over [to Vietnam], I would still be a drunk and a traveler and in Missoula, Montana," he says, explaining that he had a whole other existence-marriage, kids, house-that he abandoned long ago for the road.

I ask him if he's going to attend the ceremony at the courthouse and he nods but says, "I'm going to go get me a beer first because I'm an alcoholic." His smile is mischievous.

Soon after, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year, more than 200 people gather at the courthouse. World War I, the war that was supposed to end all wars, came to a dramatic end at this exact time in 1918, and Veterans Day now commemorates the moment.

Berard and the rest of the Combat Veterans line up prominently at the forefront of the crowd. They've all donned dark glasses, and they listen solemnly, subtly wiping their eyes every now and then. Smith shows up wearing a camouflage zip-up coat and a blue baseball hat and hovers near the crowd's edge.

The pomp and circumstance is nice, he says, but "it takes a lot more than this right here to make up for what we went through."

To really appreciate veterans, he says, you have to visit a Veterans Administration hospital and see men with missing limbs, with disfigured faces. You have to visit the graveyard.

"You are talking to one of the lucky ones," he says. "I feel sort of bad because you're not talking to one of the real warriors. The real ones aren't here."

His message isn't all that different from that of the speakers, though it's more bitter and not as polished. Smith and the black-vested Combat Veterans, in many ways, couldn't be more different, which shows most obviously in their words and in their clothes. But they carry the same wounds from the same wars, and today they have come together briefly in common remembrance. At ceremony's end, the Combat Veterans line up to thank and shake hands with Hyland's parents before roaring off on their black motorcycles. Smith wanders off, still searching for his first beer of the day. Breakfast dishes are cleared away, and the courthouse lawn, which briefly buzzed with life, quiets back into its old self.

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