CRESTVIEW — Some of them may not move as fast as they once did, and some may forget things now and then, but when the first Thursday of the month rolls around, 30 or more Duke Field Air Reserve Technicians, or ART, veterans make a beeline for breakfast.
Uncle Bill's Family Restaurant, which doesn't normally open for breakfast, is soon abuzz as old friends catch up over coffee, eggs, grits, sausage and French toast. There are backslaps and guffaws as a favorite joke is recited — again — and expressions of concern over pals who are absent or sick.
"Everybody catches up, tells war stories and lies a little," six-year Army and 28-year ART vet Russ Chamberlain says.
Breakfast with patriots
The monthly breakfast gatherings started in 1984, just a couple years after Carl Gay, Clyde Spencer and Ronnie Adams retired from Duke Field.
"We'd meet at Hardee's, just the three of us," Gay says. "We'd have a good talk and coffee and say, 'See you in a month.'”
More veterans learned about the gatherings and joined them; eventually, they moved the breakfasts to a bigger place.
"We enjoy having them," restaurant owner Bill White says. “We give them a little discount and they have a good time. (Server) Sheila (Kurpil) takes good care of them."
Still, it’s first come, first served, as 26-year ART veteran Mary Alberts learns when she plunks her plate down on a table she shares with Chamberlain and Conrad Rhoads.
"You men got all the eggs!" she laments.
"You should've gotten your food instead of yakking to everybody," Rhoads says.
Some of the vets served in the Vietnam War, some served in Desert Storm, and veterans of other conflicts are in the mix.
"I missed Vietnam. I went to Germany and got drunk and chased women instead," Chamberlain says straight-faced as Rhoads and Alberts laughed.
"He doesn't let the truth get in the way of a good story," Rich Tyler interjects, teasing his friend.
"In '89, we went down to Panama and overthrew Noriega," Chamberlain continues, barely missing a beat. "We were called back to active duty for Desert Storm and then again after 9/11."
Korean War veteran Bob Mury, now in his 80s, is one of the group's oldest members. He retired in 1988 or '89 — "I don't remember exactly when, to tell you the truth," he says.
But when it comes to recalling his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Mury remembers the details: It was cold that winter. An overflow of inductees into the fledgling U.S. Air Force caused a barracks shortage.
"They had a bunch of people there," Mury said. "Some died. They were living in tents. We had some boys come down from New York. They didn't think it got cold in Texas."
All are welcome
The ARTs began gathering in the Crestview area soon after former Congressman Bob Sikes secured funding to establish an Air Force Reserve unit at Duke Field in the 1970s. The group first worked on the AC-130 "Spectre" gunship.
After 20 years, "we went from the gunships to the combat (T-38) Talon," Chamberlain says.
Their bonds are strong, but it doesn’t matter if breakfast attendees are not ART vets, or even Air Force.
"We don't stop people coming in the door. We're open to everybody," Chamberlain says. "But we're always glad to see Air Force veterans."
"Or Army or Navy," Rhoads says.
"Yeah, we don't throw them out the door," Chamberlain says.
Want to go?
Retired Duke Field Air Reserve Technicians gather for a monthly breakfast between 7 and 10 a.m. every first Thursday at Uncle Bill's Family Restaurant, 252 S. Ferdon Blvd. The breakfast buffet is $7.95, or $6.95 for vets on motorcycles. All military veterans are welcome.
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.