Each Veterans Day, restaurants such as casual Tex-Mex chain Chili’s Grill & Bar offer free meals to the women and men who served in the U.S. armed forces. Alone, Chili’s said it served 200,000 free meals Friday.
That figure did not include a hamburger ordered by 47-year-old retired serviceman Ernest Walker. While waiting for a Chili’s meal to go, his Veterans Day routine was upended by an ugly, racially charged accusation.
Walker visited the Chili’s in Cedar Hill, Tex., on Friday. A member of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division from 1987 to 1991, Walker came prepared. He brought his military ID and discharge papers. He was wearing a hat as well as fatigues bought post-retirement, without name tags.
“I wear this one day a year,” Walker told NBC Dallas-Fort Worth. “I’m not some kook that’s reliving the past.”
The lack of identifying tags on the uniform, he said, was not meant to be deception but a deliberate decision to distinguish himself from active duty members. “This is what I’m able to wear,” Walker said to CBS Dallas. “Excuse me, okay, and I purposely don’t wear rank or a name tag as not to be identified as an active soldier.”
He also had his service animal, named Barack, a cardiac alert dog trained to respond to Walker’s changes in blood pressure. Barack had on his certified service tag and red vest.
Walker ordered his free hamburger from a Chili’s waitress, whom he described on Facebook as “wonderful.” It was what happened next that left a bad taste in his mouth.
A man — an “old white guy wearing a Trump flag shirt,” as Walker put it — approached the veteran. The other customer asked Walker if he had served in the 24th Division, to which Walker replied it was the 25th. The man then accused the veteran of lying, Walker wrote on Facebook. The man said he was in Germany during World War II and told Walker, “we did not see people like you over there. They would [not] allow blacks.” Walker, who is black, said he brushed it off.
Before Walker could leave with his food, a Chili’s manager stopped him. A restaurant guest, the manager said, claimed Walker was not a veteran. The customer told the manager that the veteran was “not a real soldier because he had his hat on indoors,” as Walker told KDFW. Walker, incredulous, showed the manager his ID.
“I looked around and I’m embarrassed at this point,” Walker said to NBC‘s KXAC. “People are looking. I’m a soldier. I’m a person and everybody’s looking like I stole food.”
On Facebook, Walker argued that the manager should have responded with an apology, and with that Walker would have left. Instead, the manager then said the other customer claimed the veteran had lied that Barack was a service dog.
To Walker, this was the final insult. He said he became upset and began to record the manager. He posted a video of his interaction with the Chili’s employee to Facebook. The manager refused to accept the military ID and denied Walker the takeout box.
The response to the video — which racked up nearly 400,000 views by early Tuesday — prompted a corporate apology and a termination of the employee. Chili’s President Kelli Valade offered her apologies to Walker, according to a statement the restaurant released Monday.
In an open letter, she wrote, “On Nov. 11, one of our restaurants failed to live up to our expectations and in doing so, we let down a valued Guest. Last week, Mr. Walker, a veteran, came into our restaurant to participate in our Chili’s program honoring veterans and active military with a free meal. Unfortunately, Mr. Walker was not treated in a manner our veterans deserve.”
The manager was “removed” from his post, the AP reported.
“Mr. Walker was not interested in seeing the young man fired,” said Lee Merritt, Walker’s attorney, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “He felt that he had made a mistake to the extent that he could own up to it. … The end result doesn’t have to be hostility. If it could be a benefit to the Dallas community, that would be an end goal for us.”
The incident was a reflection of the “temperature of America right now,” Walker said to KDFW. If this had not occurred in the wake of the recent election, Walker said, “I believe that man would have never reacted that way, because I think he’s probably a good person.”
Reports of abuse of minorities surged after Election Day. To Lesley Stahl on Sunday night’s “60 Minutes,” President-elect Donald Trump said he was “so saddened to hear” about the spike in harassment. “And I say, ‘Stop it.’ If it — if it helps,” he said. “I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: Stop it.”
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