FOUNTAIN - He showed up expecting a free pancake breakfast as a thank-you for his service.

The Colorado Springs Young Marines did Robert Willson one better.

They served the retired tech sergeant a piping hot stack of flapjacks, then gave him their undivided attention as they interviewed him for a unit project.

"Do you know what a seven-course Scottish meal is?" Willson, 68, quizzed the fatigue-clad youth as they huddled around his table Nov. 2.

"A boiled potato and a six pack."

The Young Marines dropped their pens, leaned back and laughed.

That day, 16 of them had prepared and served a free pancake breakfast at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6461 in Fountain.

Only 12 showed up to take advantage of the pre-Veterans Day feast, meant to accommodate those who would spend the holiday gathering with old comrades.

The Young Marines' commander, Tim Gardiner, had hoped more would attend.

But there was a silver lining to the breakfast's small turnout: It gave the junior service members a chance to shower veterans with attention.

"A lot of kids nowadays don't have any idea what these guys did or who they are," said Gardiner, a former Marine machine gunner and Army Reserves truck driver. "This gives them the understanding that American veterans come from all walks of life.

"They get to see what real veterans are like. That's something that most young adults don't get to do."

Laughter subsided at Wilson's table, and the Vietnam veteran leaned in. As his tone turned serious, the youngsters again picked up their pens.

Wilson told tales of his time at an old Russian military base on Egypt's Nile River, divulged details of days spent in the jungles of Vietnam, and dispensed his most prized pearl of wisdom: "You've never lived until you've almost died."

When he stepped away, the Young Marines remained mesmerized.

"He brings a lot of humor with his stories," said Cpl. Colton Houston.

Pfc. Dorien Skinner nodded.

"Humor is a good trait," he said.

"And his stories are a treat," Pvt. Jason Horne added.

"It's more exciting to hear history from a primary source rather than from paper," Houston said.

Spending time with the Young Marines made Willson proud.

That morning, the TVs at the VFW were tuned to the Army-Air Force football game. When the national anthem was played, the troops-in-the-making snapped to attention.

"That means a lot to an old vet like me," Wilson said. "They're going to make something of themselves."