Veterans Day is just another day for many of us. For Dan Zirbes, it's a day of deals, discounts and community.
"I always say this is my Christmas," he said.
Zirbes, who retired from the National Guard in March after 34 years, spends every Veterans Day scouring the Twin Cities for deals on food and clothing with his veteran status.
"You know, after serving for as long as I have, it's nice that all these different companies provide these discounts to veterans," he said. "Maybe call me biased, but I think that after serving for as long as some of us did, we kind of deserve it."
After years of deal-hunting, Zirbes, of Minneapolis, knows exactly where to look. His friend Ryan Schmotter, who served in the Air Force and now lives in Rosemount, said Zirbes makes a detailed itinerary for Nov. 11.
"I will certainly see Dan and I will spend lots of time with Dan this weekend because he knows where to go," Schmotter said.
A day of deals
On Saturday morning, Zirbes plans to score a free breakfast at HyVee, Perkins or Denny's. The buffet at HyVee, he admits, is his favorite because the open food court allows veterans to bond with one another.
"I'll usually sit down with anybody — I'm not too shy — and I'll just strike up a conversation," Zirbes said.
After breakfast, Zirbes and his wife typically go to the outlet center in Eagan or the Mall of America to search for clothing and gifts for the winter holidays. One shop he has his eye on is Under Armour. He wants to stock up on workout gear for 40% off.
The couple's next stop is lunch, which is usually free boneless wings and fries at Buffalo Wild Wings or a free entrée at Applebee's.
Then, Zirbes heads over to Cost Cutters for a free haircut before meeting up with his veteran friends for an annual dinner. A few years ago, they started a tradition of going to the downtown Minneapolis steakhouse Fogo de Chão, which offers veterans a 50% discount.
He's even scheduled festivities through Sunday, with a free dinner at the surf-and-turf restaurant McCormick & Schmick's in Edina.
While Schmotter likes to tag along for some of the freebies, he tends to take the day at a slower pace. He'll spend most of the day with his girlfriend and teenage children, riding bikes or walking in a park.
Since Schmotter's children love music and theater, they might spend an evening at the Ordway or Orchestra Hall. (He's received free passes for events through Vet Tix, an organization that donates tickets to veterans.)
For Schmotter, the veterans' discounts are more than simply saving dollars: They're a sign of appreciation to everyone who served our country.
"It's good to see that the nation recognizes the sacrifice that people give," he said.
Wellness and recognition
Before searching for savings, Zirbes and Schmotter run a morning Veterans Day workout class through Team Red, White & Blue, a nationwide nonprofit that focuses on improving the well-being of veterans. The class is open to veterans and non-veterans alike for a $10 donation.
The two men became friends through the organization (Zirbes is the program's Minnesota coordinator, Schmotter is the Twin Cities chapter leader), and continue to volunteer their time to foster a community of service members.
"It's nice to have that connection, that camaraderie," Schmotter said. "And it's been very positive, that impact on my life."
Support among veterans is important, but so is recognition from the greater population, Schmotter said. He knows Vietnam War veterans whose emotional repercussions from combat were compounded by negative reactions when they returned home.
He said it's refreshing how the nation now shows its gratitude toward veterans, whether it's through discounts or simply saying "Thank you for your service."
"People join the military for lots of different reasons," Schmotter said. "A lot of people join it to serve, some people might want to get college, whatever it is, but if you have that service mentality, then you sacrificed a lot of your own time and life and everything like that. So it's nice to see people appreciate that."
While Zirbes finds joy in the special deals that come with the holiday, he also spends the day thinking of those who continue to serve.
"Memorial Day is for those that we've lost and Veterans Day is for those that are still here, those that are still doing the job and protecting us around the world," he said.
Jessy Rehmann is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune. Reach her at Jessy.Rehmann@startribune.com.