Coffee4Vets started small, grew, persists in pandemic

by Dennis Anderson, special to Aerotech News
Almost 10 years ago — a few veterans approached Jin Hur, the amiable owner of the Crazy Otto’s restaurant on Avenue I and asked if they could set aside a couple of booths for a military-themed coffee klatsch.

It turned out that Jin Hur was the right restaurateur to go to for such a boon. An immigrant from South Korea, Hur is devoutly patriotic, and has one son who saw combat with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan, and another who serves as a police officer.

After a while, word got around about the coffee klatsch, and after a bit, the half-dozen veterans gathered became dozens.

Tuesday’s at 7 a.m., and running until about 9 a.m., the coffee klatsch became an event, and the mission expanded from a few veterans “shooting the breeze” to a weekly platform to disseminate information useful, sometimes even vital, for people who had served in the armed forces.

During the past several years, the organization has knitted bonds with active service military at Edwards Air Force Base, and has periodic visits from representatives for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the California Veterans Department, the National Guard, and state and local elected officials.

In 2019, Brig. Gen. E. John “Dragon” Teichert, then commander of the 41sth Test Wing at Edwards AFB, became a repeat guest, “And he would be the one pouring the coffee for the veterans,” the group’s board president, Juan Blanco, said. “He was remarkable.”

The general’s visit, and his dispatch of senior NCOs and field grade officers to meet and greet with the veterans helped brand the group as a destination for information sharing and camaraderie between veterans and active duty forces.

“When I meet with you, you Vietnam and Korean War veterans, and even World War II veterans, I realize that we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” Teichert told the group when they gathered for one of the annual Veterans Military Ball events.

(Courtesy image)

Recognizing veterans was one of former U.S. Rep. Steve Knight’s favorite tasks, and he pinned the medals on many of the Coffee4Vets regulars, including Art Ray, 95, a World War II Navy vet who served on the cruiser USS Quincy on D-Day 1944, and the surrender ceremonies at Tokyo Bay in 1945.

The group in the big room in Crazy Otto’s makes no distinctions in rank, branch of service, or gender, and embraces all the diversity in culture that makes up the Antelope Valley and the military services.

On rare occasions, a phony would turn up, sharing over-the-top stories of daring do. Usually, they would expose themselves, with something off about their story, or their mixed uniform attire or insignia, or their claims of action that didn’t add up. In other words, the event itself was self-policing. Soon, the phony would be gone.

Up until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group had been meeting weekly with nearly 100 veterans and their spouses and companions turning out. The coffee poured was free, and breakfast was discounted. The only rule was to be kind to the wait staff because they worked a very big room.

One of the favorite waitresses (and they were all favorites) for years, Alexis Gillespie, was herself an Army veteran.

“I just felt it was a room full of great people,” she said before leaving to resume her studies.

Even though the event and the room skews toward older vets, active duty service members and first responders are always welcome, as are veterans of the more recent Post 9/11 conflicts. It is a “big tent” room.

“It was several years ago, after we had been going for a couple of years that Jin Hur advised we should incorporate as a non-profit organization,” according to Coffee4Vets President, Juan Blanco.

Blanco served during the Vietnam War Era, but was posted to Germany with the 8th Infantry Division during the long Cold War where he served as a paratrooper, in field artillery, and also in finance. Two of his brothers served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.

“Our group does a lot of outreach to the seniors, to the veterans who served in Vietnam and Korea, but also World War II, and the Cold War,” Blanco said. “Vietnam, Korea and the Cold War; for a lot of these veterans when they came home there was nothing, very little recognition. What we do is celebrate camaraderie, our service, and what makes this truly the greatest nation on earth.”

The group’s board voted to shut down the in-person weekly breakfast event about a week before California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom shut down the state in response to the highly contagious nature of the COVID-19 viral pandemic. To the extent that the room was usually packed to the fire marshal’s limits, with veterans sitting elbow-to-elbow, it probably was a life-saving decision as most of the veterans fall in categories of age, or underlying health conditions.

In the meantime, during the pandemic, the group participated in “Welcome Home” socially distanced “drive-by parades” for veterans who went into the hospital, some with COVID, and who survived. Also, board members put out a weekly Coffee4Vets broadcast courtesy of Lilia Galindo and “Cafe Con Leche” on AM 1470 KUTY.

“We plan to get started again, but only when it is safe to do so,” Blanco said. “We have to look out for the health and safety of our veterans because they are living treasure.”

The group has no Veterans Military Ball planned for this November leading up to Veterans Day, but plans to bring it back in 2021, hopefully, a better and safer year for everyone.

Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group. An Army veteran, he deployed with local National Guard troops as embedded journalist to cover the Iraq War with California National Guard troops from the Antelope Valley. He works on veterans and community mental health initiatives.

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