Since 2012, dozens of veterans have met every Wednesday at Denny’s. What keeps this group going strong?
The Veterans Weekly Cup-of-Coffee has about 300 members, and sees around 55 people on average at each meeting.
Mike Heilmann went more than four decades without talking about his service in the U.S. Coast Guard. It wasn’t as though his family didn’t care; in fact, his wife and children would ask him about it occasionally.
But he never felt like his family members truly understood what he went through. Heilmann never picked up a gun in the Coast Guard, but as a Second Class Petty Officer serving in East Tawas, Mich., he helped people stranded on Lake Huron. He risked his life to save, for example, families whose boats capsized, and kids who got stuck on the water in their sailboats during big storms.
For more than 40 years Heilmann kept many of his memories to himself, until 2012 when he stumbled upon a group of veterans who had just started meeting for breakfast at the Denny’s in Rothschild every Wednesday morning. Since then, Heilmann hasn’t missed a meeting.
All together, more than 300 local veterans are part of the Veterans Weekly Cup-of-Coffee group. The weekly meetings draw about 55 members on average, and more than 75% of them are seniors.
Though the Denny’s gatherings are informal, they include displays and guest speakers, and track the information of every veteran who attends.
“Most groups like the American Legion or the VFW would be lucky to get this many people once a month,” Heilmann says. “It’s not as though they’re not really good organizations and they help a lot of people, but these guys are average age of 70. They’re not looking for more work. They can just come here, shoot the shit and talk to other veterans.”
The group’s motto is: “No agenda, no questions, no affiliations, just veterans; any age, any era. Just grab a chair and say hello.”
There are no committees. They don’t have to help balance an organization’s yearly budget. All they do is get themselves to the meetings, eat breakfast and drink coffee if they want, and enjoy a lively conversation with others they can relate to.
Heilmann is one of the only members with weekly duties. He markets the group, schedules speakers and tracks the information of every veteran who has attended. He retired in 2012 from the Wausau Daily Herald and has been instrumental in creating a following for the veteran’s group.
The meetings don’t last long—they run 10-11:30 am—but they’re different all the time. Hellmann brings in speakers such as 7th District Congressman Sean Duffy or representatives from Wisconsin’s Department of Veteran Affairs. Sometimes Heilmann will invite people who sell products and services that help veterans. He once brought in someone who sold special hearing aids to a few veterans in attendance. “We don’t bring anyone here who isn’t pro-veteran or who isn’t providing things specifically for veterans.”
Why this group works
Heilmann is one of few Veterans Weekly Cup-of-Coffee members with duties.
There are a number of groups similar to this Veterans Weekly Cup-of-Coffee. Wisconsin Rapids has one. There’s another in Kenosha called Hero’s Café. And there are many others that have tried this informal method but were unsuccessful. A group in Plover met for coffee and included veterans, police, and firefighters, but Heilmann says he thinks those gatherings faded away. One of the guys who attended the meetings at Denny’s moved to Texas and tried to start his own veteran’s group there, but that didn’t work out.
Why does Veterans Weekly Cup-of-Coffee succeed where other similar groups have failed? Jim Campbell, co-founder of Never Forgotten Honor Flight, thinks it has a lot to do with the organization’s “no BS” approach to its meetings.
“If you listen around the table, they’re not talking about killing in the jungles of Vietnam, although that’s sometimes what they talk about,” says Campbell, a 33-year veteran of the Marines. “Rather, they’re talking about things anyone would talk about—kids, grandkids, how the weather sucks, etc.”
But that informality belies the power of these coffee klatch connections. In many ways, the get-togethers have become therapy sessions for some attendees. Campbell says a number of people who attend Veterans Weekly Cup-of-Coffee have since stopped going to post-traumatic stress disorder groups. “This is their counseling and they’re here every week,” Campbell says.
Mike Thompson agrees. A National Guard veteran and the President and co-founder of Never Forgotten Honor Flight, Thompson’s father served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Throughout his childhood, Thompson would ask his dad about his wartime experiences. It wasn’t until his teen years that his dad revealed how he had to kill a German in order to get back to Allied lines after his B-17 was shot down in Europe.
Many men and women who frequent the Veterans Weekly Cup-of-Coffee have experienced similar things themselves or through family members. The majority are Vietnam-era vets. Not all saw combat—Thompson, Campbell and Heilmann weren’t ever deployed to Vietnam. However, many experience personal struggles stemming from their service that they need to get through.
“They’re able to see how everyone else is dealing with their demons. It’s not that everyone is dealing with demons but many of them are,” Thompson says. “They can see what normalcy is, how it should look and how it should feel. That’s a great prescription for the veterans—to get a good feeling about themselves.”
Legion Post, VFW seeking more participants
Both the Wausau American Legion Post 10 and VFW Burns Post 388 are going through the same issues: both veteran’s organizations have more than 450 members, but only 20-50 active participants.
That’s not to say the organizations are in dire straights. Both are quite strong and hold regular events and meetings, although the VFW has gone through some recent turmoil with the 2015 closing of its restaurant, lounge, and banquet hall on River Drive in Wausau. The VFW building finally sold last fall and the organization is hoping to find a permanent home by the time it celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020.
VFW Commander Dave Mandli says his organization is looking a building a new building on a property in the Wausau area and although money is tight he’s hoping it becomes a reality. In the meantime, the VFW is meeting at the Labor Temple Club on 3rd Avenue and holds their weekly bingo nights and other events and programs there.
The Wausau American Legion Post’s clubhouse and golf course (established in 1927) on Wausau’s northeast side was turned over to private operators in 2013 and renamed Tribute Golf Course and Bunkers Bar & Grill. American Legion members still meet there, and help support the business interests of the late Dick Dudley—a World War II veteran who provided the capital to save and revamp the facility and golf course—by patronizing the bar and restaurant.
Adjutant Dennis Borchardt says the Legion Post primarily supports veterans in the Wausau area, and tries to help the community in other ways. It sponsors the American Legion baseball team, gives five $1,000 scholarships to local high schools, and charters a Boy Scout troop. “We try to support the youth of this community.”
Borchardt says one of his organization’s goals is to attract younger members to Post 10. It’s not an old boy’s club, he assures. “Our first vice commander is a woman and we’ve had other women commanders. We encourage women and young veterans to join,” Borchardt says. “Right now the biggest bulk of our veterans are Vietnam veterans.”