A typical crowd at a Lowcountry Vietnam Vet Luncheon, which meets monthly for camaraderie. The only requirement to join is to have received a Vietnam Service Ribbon. SUBMITTED

A group of local Vietnam veterans that has met monthly since April 2017 – minus a year from Covid – has unexpectedly experienced far different treatment than they did when they came home. 

Jim Jensen, who organized the Lowcountry Vietnam Vet Luncheon, said they were surprised three times during a luncheon by strangers.

“On two separate occasions the ‘Young Families of Hampton Lake’ paid for the entire luncheon, and made cookies for all,” he said. “On another occasion, a much younger patron at the bar nearby paid for the entire group’s luncheon. Community support outside the group has been phenomenal, unlike 50-plus years ago when we returned to the States.”

Jensen, who is an Army veteran, got the luncheon idea from friends in Florida and California who had their own groups.

The group began slowly at Southern Barrel Brewing but quickly outgrew the space as a monthly scheduled event. They moved the luncheon to Backwater Bill’s at Hampton Lake as word spread via the Nextdoor app, the Vietnam Vets Only Facebook group and word of mouth. The average attendance is about 34, ranging from 20 during the holidays and as high as 49 last month.

“The only qualification to join is to have received a Vietnam Service Ribbon,” said Jensen. “It’s a low-key luncheon with no formal agenda. There have been only two guest speakers, there are no officers and no dues.”

Both Jensen and member Steve Robillard, who retired from the Navy after 30 years, say the primary attraction for them is the camaraderie among all the services for having the common thread of “boots on the ground” experience.

“That’s the primary use, not only for me, but I think for all of the guys that do attend,” said Robillard, who is also commander of the Dennis J. Becker American Legion Post 205 in Bluffton. “And of course, I take the opportunity to promote the Legion.”

Many members, who come from all over Beaufort County, also belong to the Legion, which is extremely active in the community and offers a more formal group heavily involved with community service. It’s the informal atmosphere that draws them to the vets’ luncheons.

“It’s a social thing. We share stories,” said Robillard. 

“And it’s not the funny stuff, but the weird stuff that happened,” Jensen said. “They’re in that comfort zone where they can share their experience and not judge.”

If Jensen gets RSVPs from fewer than 35 members, then the attendees order off Backwater Bill’s menu. More than 35 and the club puts on a buffet. Some will come early to chat and others will stay around a little after the meal is over, which usually lasts about 90 minutes.

Jensen said he finds new members when he wears his Vietnam ballcap around town and sees another vet. The group includes Army, Navy Marine Corps and Air Force veterans and after a few lunches, they seem to group themselves, he said.

“The New York guys sit together, the helicopter pilots connect, and there’s always free-flowing conversation,” said Jensen. “Whenever a guy comes for the first luncheon, we give them two minutes to introduce themselves: branch of service, hometown, where they were. I think after a while, there are certain groups that kind of sit with each other each time, and they’ve developed friendships over the last five years.”

Vietnam veterans who earned the service ribbon and who are interested in joining the group may contact Jensen at jensen.jg@gmail.com.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.