Walla Walla veterans find support in coffee, conversation

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WALLA WALLA — Not one of the six men sitting in the back corner booth of McDonalds on Ninth Avenue earlier this week was serving in the military Dec. 7, 1941. Yet each eventually heard the call of duty because of that two-hour period when hundreds of Japanese fighter planes first attacked America, at a naval base on Pearl Harbor near Honolulu.

With more 2,000 Americans dead, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. The event birthed this country’s participation in World War II.

“I was only 10,” noted Morris Jones. “But it affected everyone. Everyone was scared.”

Jones, 81, served as an Air Force pilot in the mid-1950s, spending a decade or so in active service.

After an initial rush of volunteers in response to Japan’s aggression, several men sipping paper cups of black brew on this day knew their turn to go to war was coming, they recalled.

With the service draft, it wasn’t a matter of “if,” but “when,” noted Bob Thomsen, 98, the group’s most senior member.

Thomsen began a military stint with a National Guard program in high school and was a navigator in the Navy from 1943-1946.

Others here include Pete Reid, 89, who flew as a Navy aviator from 1942 to 1946 before returning home to graduate from Whitman College in 1949. Bill Lake, 87, was in Navy program at Whitman from 1943-1945 before “making it out to sea about 15 feet,” he said, eliciting a laugh from his table mates.

Sam Schneidmiller, 92, served in the Air Force from 1942 to 1946, with a year’s split between tours. And John Waterbrook, 72, is the baby in this setting, serving from 1958 to 1960 as an Army medic, and afterward in the Coast Guard auxiliary.

This group of veterans, however, is more apt to speak of politics today than yesterday’s wars when they meet every Monday in the restaurant on Ninth, buying drinks before getting down to solving the world’s problems.

They’ve found their way to this particular klatch after members of other coffee clubs moved, went into assisted living or died. Here, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is dissected and examined under the lens of experience.

It’s a “sneaky” war, the men explained, rife with suicide bombers. The U.S. is constrained to fighting on a “gentlemanly basis,” Schneidmiller said as his peers nodded. “The truth is, you go to war to kill people. The restrictions they put on (soldiers) is terrible.”

Far too many military decisions are being based on politics, Reid pointed out. “But we’re in general agreement we should get out of Afghanistan. At the least.”

Soldiers have been charged with trying to reconstruct countries run by multiple tribes, Thomsen said. “They’ve been fighting since Christ was born … it’s all they know.”

Yet some good has come from the conflict overseas, and that is recognition of war’s long term mental health toll, the veterans said. No one uttered “post traumatic stress disorder” in their day, and not for soldiers who fought in Vietnam, either.

Some World War I veterans did earn the label of “shell shock,” to describe symptoms twin to PTSD, Jones said. But those in the World War II were expected to “get home and get on with life,” Schneidmiller added.

“Most of us were glad to be home and get on with what we were doing,” Reid said. “Most of us were so grateful the atom bomb was dropped. The Japanese would go to their death rather than surrender.”

Jones nodded. “They say there is no annual reunion of kamikaze pilots.”

Soldiers coming home in the 1940s were reluctant to claim any medical problems, Waterbrook noted. “So now it’s difficult to build a (veteran benefit) case. No one wore hearing protection then and hearing loss is real common for WWII vets. Yet the VA will say it’s an aging issue.”

When men and women exited the service then, no one admitted to anything as they passed through the separation center, Schneidmiller said. “When they were asked if anything was wrong medically, they said ‘no.’ And they were limping and had deafness …”

Those soldiers held it all in, said Waterbrook, a contractor for the Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs. For a dozen years, he’s helped veterans in Walla Walla access benefits and services from his office on the Jonathan M. Wainwright Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus. “Denial is a coping mechanism and the longer you deny it, the longer you can cope.”

Not that these men regret their service time — not at all. “There’s a lot of good in military experience,” Jones said. “I’d vote for universal military training if I could.”

Still, a national show of respect for all they accomplished in keeping America safe didn’t come. Unlike the experience for many Vietnam-era soldiers, WWII veterans were not loathed — after all, the whole country had participated in the war one way or another, Lake said. “It wasn’t just us.” — but support was largely invisible.

His mother, for example, wove Lake’s uniform into a rag rug that he still walks on, he said with a chuckle. “She figured it was good wool.”

And the soldiers wove themselves into their former lives, back into jobs or college, marriage and communities. “All the guys lost two, three, four years of the their lives. They were anxious to get on with their lives,” Reid said.

Today’s war has awakened an understanding in new generations, the coffee club members have found, and the Walla Walla veterans find themselves being thanked for their sacrifice.

For Thomsen, the sweetest moment came during an Honor Flight Network last month.

That organization, founded in 2005, flies “an ever-expanding waiting list of veterans” to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorial created for WWII soldiers.

Thomsen flew out one day, toured the nation’s capital one day and flew back the next. To and from, people in airports gathered along the informal parade route created when the group of 33 veterans moved from one gate to another behind two American flags, he said. “It was the most marvelous thing.”

Well-wishers sang and clapped and cheered. “They wanted to shake your hand. It was very heartwarming … awesome. We never had anything like that when we came home.”

And it is long overdue, Waterbrook said.

Walla Walla could use a boost in veteran awareness, the group agreed. There are good organizations to serve the population, but not all veterans feel welcome. “It’s our job to invite them,” Waterbrook said. “They have to see the value in the relationship.”

And the Veterans Day parade down Main Street needs better attendance, Schneidmiller feels. He meant in audience numbers, but Reid turned the observation around.

“I don’t march in the parade because I can’t fit in my uniform anymore.”

The laughter heralded a general exodus from this week’s fellowship. On Monday, they will gather again, grateful for the camaraderie of other soldiers.

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