For just one day…

On Thursday, November 11, 2010, a group of veterans spanning three generations and five wars gathered to share coffee at Richard’s Coffee Shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. It is better known as “America’s Most Patriotic Coffee Shop” but most people don’t know why. After all, most folks aren’t veterans so why should they visit a place where military types go? And truth be told, there’s a Starbucks right down the street and most people have heard of Starbucks.

The patriotism of the place is really what makes it unique. You see, before he died suddenly, Richard used to welcome every vet to his coffee shop with a free cup of coffee, a salute and a “welcome home” announcement to whoever happened to be there at that moment He asked each of us to “sign in” when we first arrived. He then checked our branch of service in the guest book and you know what? He never forgot it. Whenever we returned – no matter how long we were away – Richard welcomed us by name and branch of service. I was Navy Pilot Mike.

When Richard died, the coffee shop moved to a different storefront and was renamed in his honor. Richard deserved it. The sign out front reads “Welcome Home Veterans” if you are looking for it. We know it as Richard’s because he was a veteran and service was in his blood.

To be honest, it is no secret that the coffee at Richard’s really isn’t that great. Veterans don’t care though. Heck, we were all in the military at one time or another bad coffee is part of the gig.

Back to the story. I got there early last Thursday and found a seat off in a corner so I could watch the day unfold. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts but I needed to be with my military brothers and sisters. Richard’s is good for that. Other veterans arrived at different times and instinctively took their usual seats. The Marine veterans sat near the front door and loudly let everyone know they were there. The Air Force veterans sat quietly in a small group off to the side and kept quietly to themselves. Three former Special Forces veterans positioned themselves near me along the back wall (to have a clear view of their surroundings and to have everyone’s backs they told me). Navy veterans floated and bobbed from table to table. I think the Army veterans were the loudest. What else should you expect from the Army? Veterans are still soldiers each in our own way.

On this particular day, outside the coffee shop, the scene was a festively a patriotic red, white and blue. American flags lined Main Street. A parade passed the picture window. Kids who had the day off from school climbed on fire trucks and watched colorful floats.

A few parents took their kids in to Richard’s to shake hands, hear an old war story and meet a veteran. They got to meet some Purple Heart types and a Medal of Honor winner or two, as well. Yes, there were a few in the crowd but you’d never know it unless you asked. These parents were smart enough to ask. Most aren’t.

Last Thursday was Veterans Day and, for one fleeting day, we veterans had both the local and national spotlight. For one day, the men and women who, at one time or another in all our lives, wrote a blank check to the government – using body, mind and soul as collateral – were in the spotlight. America said “thanks.”

To take it a step farther, some even said “Happy Veterans Day” but I’m not sure I understand why. What is happy about it? By spinning it positive and making it sound happy, maybe America was, in effect, blocking out the sad memory of veterans who have fallen or the unsightliness of those of us who live with physical disabilities not to mention those who live homeless on street corners and down back alleys. Maybe “Happy Veterans Day” was the best they could do. It didn’t matter, veterans just appreciate the gesture.

But actions speak louder than words. This coming Thursday, the veterans will gather again (yes, it’s a weekly thing at Richard’s) but no one will take notice, shake hands or say “thanks.” There will be no American flags on display. No parades with floats.

You see, no sooner than Thursday turned to Friday did America shift gears. Stores announced Christmas sales. They stocked the shelves with early discounted products. The light posts on Main Street were redecorated with snowflakes and holiday wreathes.

Veterans deserve more than one three hundred and sixty fifth of a year. A life volunteered in service to protect our freedom and independence warrants more than a fleeting, drive-by mention and one “X” on a calendar. But until that happens – if it ever does – I’m thankful America pauses for just one day. And I’m honored to be a veteran.