Military Resistance and PTSD Soldiers Find Home at Coffee Strong
At Coffee Strong, anti-war veterans give coffee and advice to soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Iraq War veteran Josh Simpson is a founding member of Coffee Strong, outside Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
Photo By Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine
On June 26, 2011, U.S. Army Ranger Jared August Hagemann removed his M1911 from its holster. The 25-year-old already had carried the sidearm with him on eight deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, so he knew how much damage even a single round could do against flesh and bone. It was late Sunday evening at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and Hagemann stood in a training area, stalked by a terrorist more relentless than any Taliban suicide bomber. His opponent’s name: post-traumatic stress disorder, the clinical term for a severe form of anxiety usually known by its acronym, PTSD.
Staff Sgt. Hagemann placed the muzzle against his right temple and pulled the trigger. His obituary, published by his hometown paper in California’s San Joaquin Valley, said only he had “died unexpectedly,” words his widow would dispute.
U.S. veterans of post-9/11 combat are taking their lives in alarming numbers, and PTSD seems to be the primary cause. If the military’s response is inadequate, is anyone else ready to help GIs heal their psychic damage?
Ask Ashley Joppa-Hagemann, Jared’s widow and the mother of their two children. She’s sitting in a coffeehouse not far from Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), a military reservation in western Washington that is home to 100,000 soldiers, Marines, Air Force personnel, their families, and civilian contractors.
Though JBLM is nominally in Starbucks country, its neighborhood coffeehouse is no ordinary caffeine bar. Wedged between the southbound lanes of Interstate 5 and a Subway sandwich shop, Coffee Strong is run by vets and strategically positioned 300 yards from JBLM’s gate. Active-duty personnel and veterans get free java and advice. Civilians patronize the shop as well, which exists mostly on donations from those who support its cause.
The coffeehouse is part of a grassroots movement of veterans and pro-GI, anti-war Americans determined to help active-duty personnel and discharged veterans receive benefits due them, get out of the military, or cope with what the U.S. government either can’t or won’t treat effectively: PTSD, the mental illness caused by experiencing trauma, like the horrors of war.
“In the last month of his life, Jared put a gun to his head three times. He told me every day was a struggle to wake up and want to live,” Ashley says. “He said the things he had seen and done, no God would have forgiven him.”
Lagging Support for PTSD Soldiers
Jorge Gonzalez began volunteering at the coffeehouse in 2009. He saw it as a chance to help comrades and their families, and also as a kind of self-treatment. A Specialist E-4 in the army, Gonzalez returned from Iraq in 2007. After a couple of months, he realized he was suffering from PTSD and went to JBLM’s mental health professionals. What he experienced when he attempted to get help within the military system is not unusual.
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