NOTE: This series delves into the military presence in the tri-county area, examining its impact and what factors play into the age of the area's population. The series, which began Sunday, concludes today.

 

DESTIN — Every Thursday morning they arrive at 7 o’clock sharp.

Wearing white shirts, men who share a common history gather weekly to enjoy breakfast at Cracking’s in Destin. The Crispy Warriors are a group of about 50 military veterans who meet to relive the camaraderie they had while serving in the U.S. military.

 

They are among the approximately 62,000 veterans living in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties and make up 7 percent of the overall population in the tri-county area. The Crispy Warrior members span in age from 52 to 100, and most of them served at a local military base during their active duty years and claim the beauty of the area enticed them to stay.

Ken Beaird, an 84-year-old retired Air Force major, said he first arrived on the Emerald Coast in 1965. A pilot, he was brought to Hurlburt Field to train and then served in Vietnam. After his time in the Air Force, Beaird decided to change careers; he was offered a promotion to lieutenant colonel, but decided instead to hang up his flight suit and don a captain’s cap.

“We had already bought the Reveille Motel and the Reveille II charter boat, and if I had taken the promotion it’d have been a two-year commitment,” he said. “So I said no, and passed up the promotion. I’d rather be a boat captain than a colonel. I had the boat for 30 years.”

A coastal Texan born and bred, Beaird said his decision to make Destin his new hometown came at the first sight of the white sandy beach.

“I got here in ’65, I saw this white sand and green water and said, ‘This is it,’” he said. “All I wanted to do is retire and fish for 30 years. Once people get here, get this white sand between their toes, they can’t get out.”

Bert Everhart, 79, is another Crispy Warrior (the group got its name because of a love of crispy bacon) who came to the Emerald Coast with the Air Force and then was drawn back by the area’s charm. Stationed at Eglin for two years from 1990 to 1992, Everhart said the people in Northwest Florida are the best he’s ever been around.

“My plan was to retire in another part of Florida, but this was home,” he said. “I came back in ’96 and the atmosphere and the friendliness of people here … it was like coming back to family.”

One of the most decorated members of the Crispy Warriors, John Beard also fits the description of retiring near the flagpole. A World War II veteran, combat pilot with 105 missions and recent centenarian, Beard said the beauty of the area won him over. Beard trained at Eglin Air Force Base twice before WWII and was stationed at Eglin when he retired in 1965.

“I used to come down here in 1940 and I thought it was the prettiest place in the world and I said, ‘Someday I’m going to retire here,’” he said. “There was nothing here on this beach from here to Panama City Beach except white sand, no buildings, and I said, ‘This is the place.’”