In a banquet room in the back of a St. Helens restaurant, amid the murmur of Friday morning breakfast service, more than 60 veterans from across Columbia County gathered for a rundown on how recent state legislation would affect them, to hear updates about veterans' services in the county and, generally, to check in with one another.
The veterans, many graying and donning hats, shirts and jackets denoting a particular military branch or division, also continued to build on their shared bond of community, one spanning geographic lines and rooted in service to country.
"It's not very often you get to be in the same room with actual living history," said 76-year-old U.S. Army veteran Jerry Peal, who regularly emcees the meeting.
Peal's remark followed a recounting by Scappoose's Frank Weber of his experience serving on the USS Colorado and being present in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945 — almost 72 years to the day — when the Japanese surrendered to the United States on the deck of the USS Missouri, ending World War II.
"You could see the people on the Missouri, but you couldn't tell exactly what was going on from our ship," Weber, 93, noted of the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. "All in all, it was a great experience."
Weber's story is no doubt one of thousands that could be collected from the veterans' remembrances.
The veterans' no-host breakfast meetings are held the first Friday of the month at the Village Inn, as they have been for at least the past four years, said Scappoose Army veteran Tom Ford. It's a chance to share stories, air concerns, gather information and meet up with others who have the common thread of military service. By hosting a monthly raffle, the group is able to sock away a little cash for contributions and donations, such as an allocation for a Veterans Stand Down this Saturday and another to the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
"It's been pretty successful. We're pleased with it. We get speakers and people can voice information all the time. It's been a good deal," Ford said of the monthly meetings. "We tend to focus on veterans issues, not only on legislation, but any issue, any function that incorporates any veterans issue at all. There's a wide range."
While most in the room are veterans or their spouses, the breakfast meetings are open to anyone. They typically draw around 40 people, Ford said, attributing the Sept. 1 spike in attendance to the presence of guest speaker Sen. Betsy Johnson, who updated attendees on recent legislative actions affecting veterans' services.
"With the senator coming, it was a pretty good draw," Ford said.
Johnson also fielded a handful of concerns about recently passed SB 719, which allows family members and police to confiscate guns from people who exhibit signs of harming themselves. It was clear the legislation, which Johnson opposed and is now the focus of
a referendum effort, struck a bad chord with most in the room.
Like many Columbia County veterans groups, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, the presence of younger veterans at the breakfast who had served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars was slim. It's a widespread problem, Ford said, and one that lessens veterans' stock at the national level.
"We're definitely graying and it's dangerous. Posts are closing nationwide from lack of membership," Ford said. "It's desperate. We need to have numbers. The only thing that Congress recognizes is numbers."
If you go
What: Monthly No-Host Veterans Breakfast
Where: Village Inn Restaurant, St. Helens
When: First Friday of each month, starting at 8 a.m.
Who: All are welcome