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Vets leave war memories at Army-Navy store

Vets leave war memories at Army-Navy store

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

For those who never served, military surplus means lots of cheap gear and a little imaginary swagger.

For veterans, military stuff means memories.

There is a rack in the middle of the Orange Army Navy Store that isn't just filled with used uniforms. It's filled with patriotism, honor and courage.

For some, the rack also is filled with tough times.

Owner Mike Alvarez points out at a used Marine dress blues jacket. Red piping sets off navy-blue wool. The collar stands stiff. Brass buttons shine.

Sure, the family-owned business will make a few bucks off the coat. But Alvarez shakes his head. Why would anyone give up such a hard-earned item?

But then he smiles. Alvarez knows that in time, there's a good chance that veteran won't just be one of the few.

At some point, the Marine likely will re-discover what it means to be one of the proud.

• • •

Military surplus stores are full of mystery and promise.

Like many of my generation, I dug into a cardboard box in the back of a closet and found my dad's World War II Army uniform. The hat hung over my eyes. Later, my grandfather gave me his World War I bayonet, his initials etched in the wooden handle. It might as well have been made of gold.

I loved checking out Army-Navy stores, hoping I might find a bazooka. Or a tank.

Decades later, walking into the Orange Army Navy Store, that wonderment and appreciation returns.

As Alvarez, 55, looks at the dress blues jacket, I share his feelings and hope the Marine will walk in and reclaim the coat.

At the same time, I want to search the pockets. I remember when my Dad, a reserve Foreign Service officer in 1966, brought back from Vietnam a fist-size Vietcong kerosene canteen.

Who ever wore the Marine jacket, undoubtedly served in Iraq and-or Afghanistan. What did he bring back?

Of course, an employee already has gone through the pockets.

Yes, the point of the store is to sell things. But if they find something, they contact the veteran.

That's the way the Alvarezes have always operated – through three generations and more than a half-century.

• • •

It was 1955 when two Alvarez brothers saw the potential for a thriving military surplus store.

In those days, Orange County not only had Camp Pendleton to the south, the Navy's weapons station in Seal Beach and the National Guard base in Los Alamitos, it also had thousands of Marines at Tustin and El Toro.

The brothers bought a little shop just south of the Circle of Orange. Today, the store is in the same spot, but has expanded into the next store and the next.

On the store's north side, there are work clothes – think stuff for manual labor, not suits and ties – and outdoor clothes.

Alvarez, who served on Orange City Council from 1996-2004, calls the area a boy's and men's store.

On the store's south side, there's camping equipment, emergency supplies and some unexpected items that come with being in business for several generations.

Yellow and orange kayaks stack up against one wall. Several feet away, there's a two-person blue paddleboat.

Alvarez, an avid cyclist, has tried out the crafts in Upper Newport Bay and says the boats are popular on O.C. lakes.

But it's the center of the store I'm interested in. That's where the military stuff is, things like the blue jacket, weapons and ammo boxes. Alvarez mentions the water- and fire-proof ammo boxes are the most popular item. I'm not surprised having seen them used as storage containers in various garages.

• • •

When I was a boy, military surplus stores were stuffed with heavy metal – helmets, hip canteens, pack frames.

Today, it's all Kevlar, plastics and aluminum. Instead of cotton Army green, uniforms and packs are made of thick polyester and have digitally designed camouflage with urban, jungle and desert pixilated colors.

"Camouflage," Alvarez reports, "doesn't last long in this store."

We drop into a cool cement basement – yes, a basement. It smells of cool air, old cement and earth. Wooden snowshoes hide behind a "field office" – a box that transforms into a desk. Wooden shelves hold stacks of packs.

The backpacks weigh far less than older fare. But don't confuse these backpacks with ultra-lights made for hiking.

These are ultra-lights – $69.98 – made for war.

Still, the used items are in great shape, especially considering the tales they could tell if gear could talk.

Alvarez, who also helps oversee the family's commercial real estate business, points out, "Everything is battle-tested."

• • •

We return to the racks of used uniforms. The dress blue jacket goes for $99.98; an Army tunic is priced at $19.98, the same as a used Air Force dress blue coat, the same as a green Marine sweater.

To be sure, the prices have nothing to do with the price of freedom.

Alvarez tells me that as a boy he saw what he now sees every week: A young man comes in not just to sell a uniform but to shed memories.

In the '60s, it was Vietnam vets with thousand-yard stares. Now, it's young men fresh from the Middle East. Alvarez says some even leave medals, ribbons or military patches behind.

Alvarez records items, names and phone numbers, should any veteran return with a change of heart. "It's awkward and sad."

I examine a few pins left just recently. One has a dragon and "Elementis Regamus Proelium." The Latin signifies the veteran served with the Army's Chemical Corps and specialized in biological and chemical warfare.

It's a troubling moment. But it's also a moment that is countered to some degree by the increased flow of Vietnam vets who drop in to buy decals, stickers and patches that honor their war.

Alvarez offers, "There a lot of pride in what they've done."

For many who served, time indeed means healing.

David Whiting's column appears four days a week; dwhiting@ocregister.com.


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