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A place for stories: Veterans create a community space at Ironwood Kitchen for conversation, interaction

The long table is full of Vietnam Vets who come to the Ironwood Kitchen for their weekly breakfast meeting every Friday.(Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Every Friday morning, not too long after the sun comes up, the dinning room of Ironwood Kitchen, a restaurant on the city’s West Side, comes to life.

On one such day, men who forged a fellowship based on circumstances most people would not ever wish to know, file in one right after another. Almost all are graying, and all are combat veterans.

One man in the group, Dale Cole, breaks off and steps behind the counter, where a young blond woman waits to take their orders, and begins making the coffee.

“They’ve seen things nobody wants to see,” Cole said. “They’ve had nobody to talk to, and these guys come in and are able to sit with like people.”bright spot

Hanging on the wall behind the cashier and Cole is a rack of coffee mugs. Each mug belongs to one of the men waiting in line and is inscribed with his name and an image of his choosing related to his time in the military. One features a photo of a soldier in uniform, while another displays a sketch of the Cu Chi tunnels the Viet Cong used during the war.

Larry Johnson use uses his hat to mark his place at the table.(Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Pete Bostwick has been attending the breakfasts for about seven years. Before joining the group, he said, he didn’t have any friends.

“We are people with shared experiences,” Bostwick said. “Anybody who has never done what we have can’t understand it.”

They call themselves the Ironwood Vets, but it’s the only thing about this group that is official.

They don’t advertise.

Nobody takes roll.

Their are no dues and no paperwork to sign.

All one has to do is show up and hang out.

A report released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in September said 13.5% of all people who died by suicide in 2017 were veterans. The exact number was 6,319, approximately 17 deaths by suicide a day. Although suicide is a complex issue and there is no single explanation, the report lists social isolation as a risk factor.

Coffee cups for the Vietnam Vets that come to the Ironwood Kitchen for their weekly breakfast meeting every Friday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Meanwhile, word-of-mouth is responsible for most of the group’s growth. Cole said there are about 70 regular members, most of whom served in Vietnam, but not all show up to every breakfast. About 35 showed up on this particular Friday, one of them being veteran Gene Weber. He’s been attending for four or five years. He said that although the breakfasts are informal, there are some rules of etiquette.

“We don’t tell war stories, but we tell stories,” Weber said. “There’s also no politics and no religion. It will pop up by accident sometimes, but then somebody will usually put a stop to it.”

Dale Cole warms up cups of coffee for the group of Vietnam Vets that come to the Ironwood Kitchen for their weekly breakfast meeting every Friday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

There is a lot of banter. The men trade barbs. They jokingly call a group of about half-dozen men clustered together at the end of one table the snake eaters. They were all special ops, and all but one of the group didn’t want to give their name or be photographed.

Pete Bostwick’s Cu Chi coffee cup is on the counter waiting for a fill-up as he talks with other vets. Củ Chi Base Camp served as base for the 269th Aviation Battalion of the United States Army. It is famous for its Củ Chi tunnels, which were constructed during the Vietnam War, and served as headquarters for the Viet Cong. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The veterans say they chose the restaurant, off Unser north of McMahon, because its owner, Matt Moody, is veteran-friendly. Moody said some of them stopped by his restaurant for a meal several years ago and he told his daughter to thank the men for their service. The vets followed that up by asking Moody if he would mind if they met there once a week. One place they had previously met had closed, and they were outgrowing another place.

“He let us put all this stuff up,” Bostwick said. “It’s like our own clubhouse.”

Military memorabilia, photos and maps hang on the restaurant’s walls. There’s a wall dedicated to New Mexico law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Another section recognizes important women in military history. A table up front, set for one, pays tribute to prisoners of war and those still missing in action. Each item placed on the table is symbolic, including a rose that represents faith that they will return, a slice of lemon that reminds onlookers of the soldiers’ bitter fate, and salt on the plate to represent the tears of families as they wait.

Bob Nelson enjoys the company of the fellow Vets that come to the Ironwood Kitchen for their Friday morning breakfast meetings. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Moody said he didn’t have to think twice when they asked to host their weekly get together there.

“My patriotism runs deep,” Moody said. “I know the price our servicemen and women paid for our country and the cost makes my heart ache. These men and women in our military put themselves between my family and danger, and I’ll never forget that.”

Moody said the public has embraced the decor, taking time to walk around the restaurant to look at the displays. Many customers, Moody said, have brought their own memorabilia to add to the collection, including photos, dog tags, newspaper articles, book and patches.

“I have shared tears, hugs, and countless conversations with admirers of the displays of courage,” he said. “It is the smallest act to honor our veterans by making our restaurant into a tribute to their sacrifices.”

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