MILWAUKEE — The men and women in the Armed Forces may come home to parades and parties, but after the marching and music has stopped, they face some real challenges. A Milwaukee organization is working to make that transition a little easier — all over a cup of coffee.
Dryhootch is a coffee shop in Milwaukee’s Brady Street, but it’s about so much more than coffee. Dryhootch’s mission is to help veterans readjust to civilian life.
Tom Voss joined the Army right out of high school. Less than a year later, he was deployed as an infantryman.
“Our chow hall was blown up by a suicide bomber. My platoon sergeant and squad leader were both killed in action while I was over there. It was a pretty rough experience for me. I’m diagnosed with PTSD and it took me about two years to even ask for help,” Voss said.
Many veterans have a story similar to that of Voss — they became adults while serving their country. Then, they left the military not knowing what to do next.
“All I knew was the past three years of my life I’d had decisions made for me. I was told when to be places at what time, what to eat, when to get up. You’re just kind of cut loose and then you’re sitting on your mom’s couch and you don’t know what’s next,” Voss said.
Voss ended up working at Dryhootch as a part-time barista. When he started, it was just a job to get him through college. Then, he began to open up about his deployment to Dryhootch founder Bob Curry.
“We have people who are told to be tough and do whatever needs to be done. Now, they come back and somebody says ‘well, maybe you have a mental problem,’ and that’s the last thing you want to hear,” Curry said.
Curry has devoted the last four years to helping veterans transition into civilian life. His coffee house acts as a starting place for veterans looking for help. As a Vietnam veteran himself, it’s a kind of support Curry did not get when he returned home from the war.
“The protesters attacked us in Seattle. We got off and we went back to get on the airlines, and they threw eggs and bloody chicken guts and it was just shocking. We had no idea. It was like ‘what the hell is going on?’ I went into the men’s room, took my uniform off, stuffed it in the garbage can, put on civilian clothes and said to myself, ‘this never happened,'” Curry said.
After putting the military behind him, Curry became an alcoholic. In 2002, everything fell apart, and Curry went to the VA Medical Center for addiction treatment.
“During that time, it was a bunch of vets that came to my side and helped me — people I had never known before,” Curry said.
As he watched the war in Iraq play out, Curry believed he was witnessing a whole new generation of veterans who would face the same issues he had. World War II vets built bars to gather in and swap stories. Curry said he knew he had to do something different.
“Now we know that booze and PTSD is dynamite, so the idea is the social space of this generation is coffee houses. Here’s an idea: ‘where can I come in and not feel threatened, and come in and ask for help?’ Curry said.
In the time it takes to make a mocha, a soldier, Marine, airman or sailor can make a personal connection that could turn their life around.
Heather Antoniewicz experienced war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She is another veteran helped by Dryhootch.
“Just seeing that other people are going through the same thing I was. I felt before I found Dryhootch, I felt like I was the only one,” Antoniewicz said.
Coming to the coffee house for the first time is often difficult. For many veterans, the stigma that something is wrong with them gets int he way.
“PTSD is normal. It is a normal response to an abnormal situation,” Curry said.
Curry and his battalion of volunteer veterans offer one-on-one mentorships, support groups and the guidance necessary to deal with government benefits — all over a cup of coffee.
“It’s open to the community. There’s no secret meetings going on here, so come in, have a cup of coffee and talk to a vet and see what they’re doing,” Curry said.
Dryhootch chapters are growing all over the country — including another coffee shop in Madison.
CLICK HERE for additional information on Dryhootch, and coffee shop locations.