FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — There are generals and regular grunts in this group, men who were drafted into military service as well as those who hated mandatory retirement.
But no one pulls rank at Veterans Breakfast Club of Fredericksburg meetings, held once a month at the Cracker Barrel in Central Park.
In fact, there’s more good-natured ribbing than saluting and as many war stories on the menu as bacon and eggs.
Paul Galanti travels from Richmond for the monthly get-togethers. During the Vietnam War, he spent almost seven years as a prisoner of war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” the same accommodations Sen. John McCain had.
A former commissioner for the Virginia Department of Veterans Service, Galanti speaks to various groups about his harrowing experience. Many are awe-struck, but rough-and-ready Marines put a somewhat different spin on his imprisonment.
“One Marine said I was the luckiest son-of-a-gun_and that’s paraphrasing,” Galanti told the breakfast club. “He said I only had to do one cruise, then I got to do offshore duty for seven years, in a gated community.”
“And with catering service,” chimed in Ed Boyd, a first sergeant with the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Department. “The Marines haven’t changed.”
Boyd spent 18 years in the Marine Corps and has been with the Spotsylvania department for 19 years. He started coming after meeting Charlie McGhee, who’s 88 and the oldest member of the group.
McGhee told Boyd he has breakfast “with a bunch of distinguished fellows.”
“As he started describing them to me, I said, ‘They sure are,’ ” Boyd said.
McGhee is no slouch. He pitched with the Braves for three years when they were still in Boston, then served 35 years with the Army and 20 years with the FBI.
Add up the military service of all those around the table and it probably tops 200 years, said Max Garland, a Korean War veteran who organized the group.
The men represent all branches of the service. Frank Pacello earned three Purple Hearts for combat injuries during the Vietnam War. He took a hit to the shoulder from an AK-47 and had a grenade blow up in front of him.
Still, his dark eyes twinkled when he talked about his 25 years with the Marine Corps.
“Yeah, it was a good career,” he said.
Gene Taylor was drafted in the Army during the Vietnam War and served two years as a medic. But he carried on a family tradition: his father was a scout and sniper during World War II, and his grandfather, a soldier in France during World War I.
Several men have defended their country and their communities, first in the military and then in law enforcement. Jack Lohmeyer did triple duty: as a Navy captain, Internal Revenue Service agent and Virginia State Police trooper.
There are two Army generals among the 15 regulars: Maj. Gen. Daniel “Chip” Long and Maj. Gen. Carroll Childers.
Childers faced mandatory retirement after 44 years in the service, but Long’s duty was extended after “the world changed after 9/11,” Childers said.
Long was called up for several active-duty assignments, served as the adjutant general of Virginia and was able to stay in uniform for more than 50 years.
“He’s the most fortunate guy in the world,” Childers said, in all seriousness.
McGhee likes to point out that he was a first sergeant with the Virginia National Guard, the one who enlisted Long into the service.
“I knew right away he was going to be a good man,” McGhee said, and the joke made it around the table that McGhee taught “the general” everything he knows.
“I don’t think he taught me everything, but he taught me a lot,” Long said.
Later, as others jokingly pointed out the parts they played in Long’s distinguished career, Long smirked and added: “If it wasn’t for these guys, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “I’m pretty much useless.”
William Hicks said he’s often in awe of the history made by those around him.
“I’m sitting here, with my mouth open listening to them,” he said.
Hicks said his service of six years in the Air Force often pales in comparison to the others. Yet, there’s no bragging at the table, just camaraderie among those who have shared similar experiences.
“We basically leave any egos and former military ranks at the door,” he said.
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