Pulling into the 66th Street Bob Evans in St. Petersburg is like pulling up to a war memorial.
Cars with bumper stickers like “U.S. Navy Retired” and “United States Army” pepper the restaurant’s parking lot. A flagpole sports both the American flag and the flag for POWs and MIAs.
Inside the restaurant, a patriotic aura fills up half the dining room, where men mill about with limps and canes, yet still stand tall. Some wear caps with “U.S.S. Tutuila” and “D-Day 70th Anniversary” woven in. One man shows off his keyring, where he keeps the first nickel he ever made embedded in a keychain. Another laughs about his nickname, “Lieutenant Dan,” pointing out that he still has both his legs.
At 9 a.m. every Friday, the group of vets (and non-vets, too) comes together at this Bob Evans to share memories over plates of breakfast food, which are usually the same and memorized by their waitress, Linda. In their creed, displayed proudly on the wall, they declare their love of country and invite you to their table.
They call themselves Bob's Vets.
Founded in 2008 by four men who met one day for breakfast, Bob's Vets has grown to 1,000-plus members who meet at nine Bob Evans restaurants across the state in cities like St. Pete, Clearwater, Bradenton and Ruskin. Currently, they're working with a store in Seffner to establish it as a meeting place as well.
"It was such a good feeling that we were together as one against a very difficult time, not only nationwide but worldwide," says Sam Martin, one of Bob’s Vets' founding members, of World War II. "We were together. It was one country. And I don't think we've been together since then."
A retired Air Force pilot and colonel who served in Vietnam in '66 and '67, and survived over 100 missions, Martin eats at a different Bob Evans a few times a week.
"Bob's Vets has kind of indicated what can happen when you have all of these individuals get together. So many of them have post-traumatic stress and don't feel comfortable with mainstream society... By providing something like this, they can come together, and there's something meaningful and important in their life," he says.
At 84, Martin knows everyone in the room — and won't hesitate to introduce you to them. He knows everyone's story and radiates with patriotism.
His mission is to spread the group to the country's more than 600 Bob Evans restaurants (and get each of them to fly an American and POW/MIA flag). Given Bob Evans’s partnership with the Gary Sinise Foundation, to which Bob Evans Farm is donating $200,000 and providing meals to support the foundation’s Serving Heroes initiative, Martin is hoping that, on a corporate level, they’ll catch on to the idea.
Further south, at the Bob Evans on 34th Street, another group meets on Tuesday mornings. The vibe is exactly the same.
They discuss their experiences in the Battle of the Bulge. They consult about their next fishing trip. They talk of surviving napalm accidentally dropped in rice patties. Bill Terwilliger, awarded a Silver Star at 17 for his service in Korea, shares details on the vacation to Arizona he's planning. And one man, whom many refer to as their leader, talks about growing up in St. Pete.
William "Bill" McMannis, a Flying Tiger for the Air Force, moved to Florida in 1926 and played football for St. Pete High, which he graduated from in 1935. He flew as a civilian pilot in '37 before enrolling at the University of Miami, where he earned a degree in chemical engineering. Later, in 1942, McMannis enlisted in the Air Force, flying in China until he retired in 1946.
He'll celebrate his 100th birthday on Aug. 31.
"I've been around," McMannis jokes, blue eyes still sharp. He flies occasionally, co-owning a Beechcraft airplane with longtime friend Rob Moler, who takes him up every now and again.
Bob's Vets is about camaraderie more than anything else, according to Martin. They don't gather to discuss politics or the state of the world today. They sit down, often times at one long table that stretches from one end of the room to the other, to share the things they can't always discuss with their families or therapists.
"We come together for something that's meaningful and important," he says. "It's a part of the healing process. It's more helpful than hospitals and psychiatrists."
The sense of people coming together, whether veterans or not, despite a vastly polarized, political world, is something that Martin and the rest of Bob’s Vets cherished decades ago and still value now.
They want to make America great again, and to them, that's not a slogan. They really mean it.
"We are Americans," Martin says. "First and last and always."
Carlynn Crosby is a recent graduate of the University of Florida, where she majored in English and public relations.