Military Resistance and PTSD Soldiers Find Home at Coffee Strong

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Photo By Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine
Iraq War veteran Josh Simpson is a founding member of Coffee Strong, outside Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

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.

“When I finally sought help, I was put on what I call the Army’s ‘quick fix’ program–the antidepressant Zoloft,” he says. “After that, I was seen once a month by the psychiatrist, usually for five minutes, maybe ten, and that was just to get my prescription renewed.”

Gonzalez says his doctors never discussed coping strategies. “I was depressed. I had thoughts of suicide,” he says. “But there was never really any advice from the psychiatrist, like, ‘This is what you could be doing to get better.'”

Just as frustrating, he felt his chain of command never supported his attempts to recover from PTSD. “There was no interest in pulling me away from any training,” he says. “I was always going out, coming back, getting my prescription filled.”

After a year of zero progress, Gonzalez quit taking Zoloft. Then he left the army. He still struggles with depression and PTSD, “but now I cope with it like this: I am here at Coffee Strong trying to help soldiers and their families get the help they have been asking for.”

One dangerous practice in today’s military, say Gonzalez and his Coffee Strong compatriots, is that soldiers traumatized during their time in combat zones return home suffering from PTSD and, instead of getting the medical and psychological help they need to heal, their commanders order them back to the fighting. Those who resist are branded “sissies” or malingerers, and earn the scorn of superiors.

The activist group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) credits this attitude with the frequent episodes of violence related to combat stress that occur at JBLM; these include some domestic crimes so shocking, like the waterboarding of a child, that they’ve been reported in the national media. Coffee Strong activists point to a series of army investigations that found “systematic” shortcomings in how the army treats soldiers just back from war.

At JBLM, Gonzalez says, 50 soldiers have killed themselves since the beginning of the Iraq War, and this trend spiked in 2011–with 11 suicides from January to October. A Pew Research Center poll released in October found that 44 percent of post-9/11 veterans say they have had difficulty adjusting to civilian life, 47 percent say they feel irritable or angry, and 37 percent say they have struggled with post-traumatic stress. One in three vets polled now says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting.

None of which seems surprising to a Specialist E-4 named Greg who turned up at Coffee Strong one Saturday last September. Because he remains on active duty, he withheld his last name: “You only have to go on one deployment to see the truth,” he says. “America destroyed Iraq. When I got back, I didn’t want to kill myself, but I had days where I told myself, ‘If this is how I’m going to feel for the rest of my life, then I don’t want to be alive.'”

After Greg returned from deployment, he felt a growing anger toward superiors in his chain of command. “I’m not a hothead or a sore person that gets in trouble,” he says, “but I was literally afraid I might see them again and break a chair over their head or something.”

So Greg self-referred to Family and Soldier Readiness Services at JBLM for mental health counseling. He was shocked at the ineptness of his treatment. “This lady is giving me handouts and telling me to take deep breaths. And I said, ‘Lady, this is a big problem. When I was in Iraq, I had an officer who was crazy and vicious.’ We were a couple months from going back to Iraq, and I was afraid I was going to harm this person. And she was giving me pamphlets?”

Then he heard about Coffee Strong. “I walked in one day, I sat down, it took me a long time; I tried to explain myself. Jorge was there. He said, ‘I get it; I was in the infantry too.’ And I knew he got it,” Greg recalls, “because of what he said.”

Greg followed the advice he got at Coffee Strong, and eventually found a new therapist within the Army system who gave him psychological insight and advice. He helped Greg transfer away from the superiors in his unit.

“When I found out about Coffee Strong and Iraq Veterans Against the War, I felt like, ‘Hey, this is okay. There are thousands of other people that feel the way I do. There must be smarter ways we can take care of ourselves,'” Greg says. “Talking to Coffee Strong was a huge help to me.”

Coffee Strong: An Anti-War Coffeehouse

Coffee Strong, whose name is a takeoff on the “Army Strong” ad campaign, was started in 2008 by veterans from IVAW. Their aim was to help soldiers get services, and along the way focus some of the anti-war sentiments they knew existed among active-duty personnel. It’s one of three active anti-war coffeehouses near U.S. military bases. Under the Hood Café was launched outside Fort Hood, Texas, by 18-year Army wife Cynthia Thomas when her husband was sent on his third deployment. Norfolk OffBase, in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, is perhaps more of a resource and organizing center than a full-blown cafe, but it calls itself a coffeehouse nonetheless.

All three enterprises trace their roots to draft resistance counseling during the Vietnam War era, when Quakers and then others helped draft-age men explore alternatives to fighting. Add the support of veterans who counsel GIs based on their own experience of the system, and you have a well-respected method of resisting war by supporting the humanity of the soldier. Coffee Strong is firmly in this tradition, and boasts a luminary board of directors, including Noam Chomsky, former foreign service officer and retired Army Colonel Ann Wright, journalist Dahr Jamail, and, before his death, the historian Howard Zinn.

Two paid staff and about a dozen volunteers keep Coffee Strong open. All the volunteers pull a shift behind the espresso machine, says Kelly Beckham, who’s volunteered at the shop for more than a year. “But we do more than just make coffee.”

Volunteers talk with the soldiers, answer questions, and connect them with a cadre of specialists who help with discharge papers, veterans’ benefits, or getting access to PTSD counselors within the military or from private health care.

“When you’re a volunteer at Coffee Strong, you hear all the time how hard it is to get proper treatment, or just get their paperwork processed,” says Beckham. “Or, they’re upset with lack of support from their chain of command, how any kind of personal problems get swept under the rug.”

Word is that some commanders on base disapprove of the cafe’s anti-war stance, although, Beckham says, “We give benefits advice to anyone, whatever their opinions about the military are.” She pauses. “We are taking care of what the army has left behind. People shouldn’t have to come to a coffee shop to get help with benefits or do their paperwork for medical treatment.”

Cesario Larios, one of the founders of Coffee Strong, says that encouraging GIs to stand up for their rights, including the right to heal, is a first step to opening up room for soldiers to take a moral stance against war.

“That’s why I’m involved,” he says, “so we can encourage soldiers who have huge moral reservations about what the military is doing. Some of them are choosing alcohol and drugs to avoid the reality of feeling trapped within their military contract and a future that includes more deployments that they don’t wish to take part in–that’s why we’re seeing more suicides. I think that if we can show them that there is a broad base of support from vets and civilians, they will begin to see there is another way.”

Support Where It’s Needed

Between deployments, Jared Hagemann grew more alienated and less functional. Ashley says he’d routinely down a six-pack of beer while driving around in his truck. Sometimes he’d guzzle a 24-pack: “And that’s how we spent the first few years of our marriage.” In 2009, after returning from another combat deployment, Jared checked himself into 5 North, the psychiatric ward at JBLM’s Madigan Army Medical Center. He was separated from his wife at the time, and she remembers that, when he was released, Jared phoned and said he was scared to be alone, that she was the only person he trusted.

She raced to find Jared with his Colt in his hand. Soon afterward, some Rangers arrived. Jared said he wanted out of the unit. They told him if he left the Rangers he would either go to jail or be sloughed off to the regular Army, where he likely would face a 15-month combat deployment.

Jared tried the antidepressant Celexa but didn’t like its effects. He saw several counselors at JBLM. Some forced him to talk about what he’d seen and done in combat, and Ashley says it would send him into a drunken rage for two weeks. The Army accused him of using PTSD as a ruse to get out of work and said if he wanted counseling he would have to schedule it on his own time.

“The Rangers knew all about our problems, but they were no longer doing anything to help,” she says. “I even went to the base commander; he told me, ‘That’s normal. It’s normal for the men to come back and drink, abuse their wives and their children.’

“And I told him, ‘That’s not Jared. My Jared doesn’t do that.’

“And he just said, ‘That’s how they handle it.’ And that was that.”

Not until Jared’s suicide did Ashley find dependable support: “I haven’t really gotten any support from the military at all. Coffee Strong treats me like I’m human. They check up on me. They’ll even watch my kids and play with them.

“Whenever I needed somebody to talk with, Jorge and the others at Coffee Strong–they’ve been there for me. They’re amazing.”

Dean Paton is Seattle correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Excerpted from YES! Magazine (Winter 2012), a quarterly magazine concerned with building a more just, sustainable, and compassionate future with articles about economic alternatives and peace options.

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