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THE NATION : Veterans-turned-baristas serve up a strong brew

November 16, 2009|Kim Murphy

LAKEWOOD, WASH. — For an Army weary from war, they offer tea and sympathy -- along with double tall lattes, caramel macchiatos and leads on civilian jobs. At Coffee Strong, outside the gates of the sprawling Ft. Lewis Army base, the brew is served up by veterans and comes with a shot of solidarity.

"There's no way you can spend five years of your life being deployed in Iraq and be a normal human being when you come back to the United States. You're pretty far gone by that time," Seth Manzel, who spent two years in Iraq with the Army's 1st Stryker Brigade, said as he poured free drinks Wednesday in honor of Veterans Day. "We wanted to get involved in something that would help."

Business was light -- Ft. Lewis has 18,000 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many of the rest took advantage of the holiday to sleep in. But a typical morning at the coffeehouse sees tables filled with men and women in fatigues, sipping drinks, scanning computers free of charge and reading newspapers.

Schubert played over the sound system that sometimes features live folk concerts, hip-hop performances or someone banging on the piano under the "Support War Resisters" poster that spans much of one wall.

During the Vietnam War, GI coffeehouses sprang up to provide a support system for disillusioned veterans returning to a hostile public. Now they are making a comeback among active military and combat veterans frustrated with what they consider a lack of access to medical and counseling services, and former soldiers convinced that the best way to help their comrades is to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other coffeehouses have opened in Texas and Virginia. But Coffee Strong, which started up a year ago, operates just a few hundred yards from the biggest Army base on the West Coast -- in an urban region that has one of the most active civilian peace movements in the country.

"Most people think of this war as very abstract, as something about military and foreign policy in Washington, D.C.," said Zoltan Grossman, a geography professor at Evergreen State College in nearby Olympia, Wash. "But here we see and hear the war every day.

"We see the helicopters flying over, we see the Strykers on the highways, we hear the artillery booming from Ft. Lewis, we see the car accidents and the domestic violence and other instances of post-traumatic stress disorder affecting the people who have come back home. It makes it more real."

Grossman is on the board of G.I. Voice, a veteran-led nonprofit that helped open Coffee Strong.

"When soldiers come back from Iraq or Afghanistan, one of their major complaints is that it doesn't seem that the country knows that there's a war on," he said. "Their family doesn't necessarily want to hear their stories, their friends are more interested in reality TV."

Baristas at the shop steer patrons toward psychological and job counseling and connect them with groups that will help them get better medical treatment.

"Soldiers understand the people that are in their command, that are supposedly . . . going to help them, that's not actually their job," said Coffee Strong's manager, Andrew VanDenBergh, 27. The onetime Marine, who was stationed at Twentynine Palms, was part of the initial assault on Iraq in 2004.

"A first sergeant's job, in theory, is to help out their soldiers. But really they're working all day doing all kinds of other things -- planning, training, doing logistics. And at the end of the day, they need to move numbers with names attached to them from one column to the other column. And if your medical condition is getting in the way, that's not going to stop them."

One former military policewoman sought help at Coffee Strong because her arm had been injured during an initial tour in Afghanistan. The Army was preparing to redeploy her -- before having needed surgery -- until the shop staff put her in touch with a soldiers medical advocates organization.

"Another case," Manzel recalled, "a guy came in and said, 'I'm gonna kill my platoon sergeant.' We said, 'You should seek mental help.' He said, 'I just came from the psychiatrist. I told him this and they said I was deployable.'

"He showed us the paperwork. . . . It said, 'Latent hostility towards chain of command.'

"I'm telling you, it's systemic," Manzel said. "They have to do this to keep the numbers up. The Army cannot take care of soldiers the way it says it will and keep a force that's able to support wars on two fronts. It's just not possible."

The staff at Coffee Strong said it had found a receptive audience among Ft. Lewis' 31,000 military personnel -- at least among those who have wandered into the shop.

Most young service members join not because they want to go to war but because they have few other good options, said Manzel, 30, who wears a black T-shirt declaring his opposition to the Iraq war.

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