Tucked away, on a quiet street off Gravois Road just west of Fenton, is the Grand Slam. Every Wednesday morning this bar and grill becomes a gathering place for local Vietnam veterans.
A civilian looking for a quiet cup of coffee on a Wednesday morning won’t find it at the Grand Slam. Instead, the restaurant is filled with a lively crowd of handshaking, backslapping and welcoming veterans who show up to offer each other companionship and support.
The Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 1028 in Fenton was founded in August 2009. Four years earlier, the group started with only two veterans simply meeting for coffee. Through word of mouth, the morning coffee meet-up grew and eventually had enough members to formally start a chapter in the VVA. The group has now grown to more than 170 members, making it the second largest in Missouri, Chapter President Russ Whitener said. The gatherings can now see more than 60 to 70 veterans each Wednesday morning. All veterans are welcome in the VVA, including those who may not have served during the Vietnam War era.
DeArmond, one of the founding VVA members, said joining the group has been a “healing experience” for him. He said it is not only about receiving support, but it is also just as important to him to give support and help others as well.
“(The VVA group) has helped to heal over sadness I have from what I saw. Especially, in field hospitals. I saw people that were just absolutely butchered. And what I saw in the hospital in Japan – I saw people with part of their faces blown off, arms and legs gone, fingers gone,” DeArmond said. “We can discuss anything with the people we know were there and saw the same things that we did. These are things I’ve never talked about. I’ve never even said any of these things to my sons.”
Whitener, who retired after 30 years with the City of St. Louis Police Department, went to Vietnam in 1969 and served with the Army A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 94th Field Artillery. He said he served most of his time north of Hue City and was Chief of Section, 8-inch artillery self-propelled gun.
Whitener said he thinks the whole world changed in the 1960s. He said when many Vietnam-era veterans were growing up it was almost a time of innocence and “the good guys always won.” Everything on TV was family oriented, with shows like “Hopalong Cassidy,” “Leave It to Beaver” and “Dennis the Menace.” There was minimal news of violence, drugs or shootings happening.
“Our only drug of choice was a can of Falstaff beer,” he said, smiling at the memory.
Then, things started to change, Whitener said as his tone turned serious. In the early 1960s, people began to hear about a place called Vietnam. Large numbers of young men just out of high school, or soon after, were drafted. They were being taught the opposite of what they were taught as kids – to kill.
“Then you get over to Vietnam – guys get in those situations – I mean you’re fighting – and it’s either the other guy or you. So, it’s going to be the other guy,” Whitener said. “You see your friends killed – see them blown to pieces. You probably had never seen a dead person outside of a funeral home and you’re now dealing with body bags.”
Some veterans could deal with their experiences and put it behind them but others had difficulties, Whitener said. Some may have lost their wives and families or turned to drugs or other outlets.
“You come back to the States after living through this horror over there … you can be out in the jungle someplace and two days later
you’re back in the States,” Whitener said. “There is no debriefing, no screening and no transition.”
Today, Whitener said when he sees a person he believes is a Vietnam veteran the first thing he does is approach them, shake their hand, thank them for their service and say “Welcome home, brother.” He said most Vietnam veterans did not receive that welcome when they returned like a lot of soldiers do today. Vietnam-era veterans were not treated well in many cases and some were called names, like “baby killers.”
“You’re glad for the guys today, but there is some mixed emotions because at the same time you’re also envious,” Whitener said.
DeArmond said public perception is different now compared to when the Vietnam veterans returned home. Many people will come up, shake his hand and thank him for his service.
“I had my jacket on with my (Vietnam War) patches the other day in the Ballwin IHOP and a guy bought me breakfast. You didn’t have anything like that when we came back,” DeArmond said. “And when (the VVA) does fundraisers the public is very generous.”
Some of the VVA veterans felt uncomfortable or had difficulties at first while working at the group’s fundraising events, according to DeArmond. But now, because of the way the public has received them, “they love it.” Many VVA members now want to work at all the fundraisers.
The group holds several fundraisers during the year. Whitener said the group has collected about $76,000 so far, and donates the funds to veterans’ organizations. He said $74,600 has been donated. The group does not own a building and that leaves only minimal expenses, such as a mobile trailer used for storage and transportation of fundraising supplies.
Whitener said his group donates to several organizations, but they look specifically for ones that are volunteer-based. They do not want to give funds to an organization headed by a CEO or administrator who earns a large salary.
A few veterans’ organizations the group donates to are the USO at Lambert Airport, Fischer House, Honor Flights, Hoosiers Helping Heroes, Project Healing Waters, and Vetsville Cease Fire House, an organization that helps homeless veterans.
Both DeArmond and Whitener said when many Vietnam veterans returned from the war they simply wanted to get on with their lives. They tried to suppress their feelings and thoughts. However, many Vietnam-era veterans are now retiring and their families are raised, so there is more time to think about the war.
Whitener said it was easy to lose contact with the men he served with in Vietnam. Soldiers during the Vietnam War were individually arriving and leaving at different times. Unlike today, when mainly cohesive units leave and come home together. In recent years, technology and social media have allowed veterans to find one another and reconnect. Reunions and groups, like the VVA Chapter 1028, are forming and Vietnam veterans are getting together for support and fellowship.
Michelle Wachter is a server at the Grand Slam and has taken care of the VVA members on Wednesday mornings for four years. She said the group has always been nice and considerate to work with. So much so, that some members of the group want to help her get coffee and other items. However, she said she can’t let them do that because that’s her job.
One of the things about the group Wachter said stands out is the camaraderie between the men and how they tease and pick on each other about the different rivalries between the military branches.
Whitener worries about the veterans coming home today. Not particularly with the homecoming issues, but that many may try and suppress their experiences and simply get on with their lives, which is the same scenario many Vietnam veterans tried to do when they returned home. He said spending some time around older veterans who had some of the same experiences would help in the long run.
DeArmond said some veterans simply push their experiences out of their thoughts and other veterans still suffer with their memories and will isolate themselves. He said the VVA group tries to reach out to any veteran still suffering alone and will do whatever it takes to offer support to each other, and to any veterans who need it.
“There is a feeling of belonging,” DeArmond said. “I mean we are as close as family. We love one another like brothers.”