War stories and coffee

By Ron Newberry

As the clock approaches 9, they begin showing up at a long table in the dining area.

One by one, they arrive, grab a pastry, piece of fruit or cup of coffee and pull up a chair, hoping to settle in for awhile.

It’s not just the coffee and goodies that entices them. Mostly, they come for the company and conversation.

Every Thursday, Oak Harbor’s Harbor Tower Village hosts an informal social gathering known as the Veterans’ Coffee Club for veterans to talk about whatever’s on their minds.

On this day, seven veterans are on hand, representing four branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and conflicts that span a half century.

There is a Pearl Harbor survivor from World War II and veterans from the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars.

They range in age from 63 to 92.

Only one of them resides at the retirement community. The rest live elsewhere on North Whidbey but make it a point to try to make it to Harbor Tower Village as often as possible for the occasion to chat and reflect.

The gathering is open to all veterans with only one requirement — good listening skills.

“He likes to talk,” said Louis Muehlhausen, a Marine Corps veteran, referring to Franklin Walls, a former Navy air crewman.

“I talk too much,” Walls said flatly, poking fun at himself.

Talking is what the gathering is all about. Sharing stories and experiences with those who can relate to them makes the meetings all the more valuable.

“I think it’s just the camaraderie,” said David Guthrie, a former jet engine mechanic who spent 14 years in both the Air Force and Navy as part of a 40-year career in aviation. “There are friendships and a vast range of ages, history and different experiences. We’ve gone to different parts of the world.”

“I think some of us don’t get to talk at home so we come down here,” Muehlhausen joked.

There is no shortage of humor and good-natured teasing, but there’s also a sense of needing to be there for others who still struggle with some of the difficult memories of war.

Glen Vaughn, 81, said the people he’s met at coffee club meetings also have helped him make connections with other veteran organizations. He said he’s enjoyed hearing “war stories and real facts,” which drew a laugh from others.

“They kind of get intermingled,” Walls said.

Walls said he started attending the meetings a year ago to “swap sea stories” with other veterans as well as those who experienced Vietnam like him.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time touring in helicopters,” Walls, 82, said. “I feel like I did something worthwhile.

“I enjoy reliving old times. I kind of miss being out there for a little bit but not a whole lot.”

For some, the meetings are therapeutic.

Steven DeAvilla, a veteran of both Vietnam and the Gulf War, said he suffers from moderate to severe post traumatic stress disorder. When he arrived for the meeting, he immediately shared how he had been struggling lately with his issues.

“I didn’t sleep at all last night,” DeAvilla said. “My PTSD was kicking my butt.”

Just talking about it with others who understand and lend an ear to listen helps, he said.

“You can just vent,” he said.

The coffee club meetings originated in the seating area at the former Safeway location on State Highway 20 about eight years ago, then was moved to Harbor Tower Village in 2010, said Arielle Corrin, the retirement community’s program coordinator.

Harold Johnson, 92, is the group’s most celebrated member and considered the most lucky, a World War II veteran who survived the sinking of the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 while 429 of his shipmates perished.

Later during the war, near the Aleutian islands, he was board a ship that struck a reef and was again ordered to abandon ship and jumped into the water to await rescue.

“For him to be here and tell his story is pretty remarkable,” Muehlhausen said.

Guthrie, 70, said he considers himself an amazing company every time he attends a Veterans’ Coffee Club meeting, which generally run from 9-11 a.m.

“It’s been an honor for me to be here and listen to their stories,” Guthrie said. “And the fact that they are here to tell those stories. I feel privileged to be with these guys.”