Looking north from the parking lot of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, you can see the steeple of Milwaukee Soldier’s Home—a pioneering, all-in-one facility built for veterans returning from the Civil War. It was established in 1865 as a result of federal legislation calling for a national system of similar homes around the country, one of the first government attempts at healing soldiers after war. President Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, had called upon the nation “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.”The Soldier’s Home once provided housing, medical needs, and camaraderie. Though several of the buildings still stand, they are now surrounded by a chain-linked, barbed-wire fence. The funding to keep them operational is nonexistent.
Today, on Milwaukee's East Side, you'll find another, very different pioneering project in the field of veteran care—a coffeeshop called Dryhootch.
Founder Bob Curry, a Vietnam veteran who himself has post-traumatic stress disorder, created Dryhootch in 2010 to provide a place for a new generation of veterans to come home to.
“Those of us who have been down the journey could tell other veterans that here’s the issues, here’s the problems, here’s the help you can get—and don’t do what we did,” Curry says. “We need to do something for this generation.”
Dryhootch isn’t an extension of the Department of Veteran Affairs; nor is it connected to some American Legion post or Starbucks ad campaign. It’s a nonprofit, substance-free, vet-to-vet peer-mentoring initiative to ease the transition from military to civilian life, all while providing a healthy social gathering place.
“If you look at older veteran organizations like the American Legion or VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars], they formed around a bar,” Curry says.
Dryhootch gives vets a place to talk informally with other vets about VA bureaucracy, going back to school, getting a job, and any other problems they might be having. It also offers peer and group mentoring and alternative medical treatments, like acupuncture.
The project started on Brady Street, a typically liberal, anti-war Milwaukee neighborhood. During the Vietnam War it was ground zero for activists and protesters. Today, the attitude has changed a bit, and the community is looking to help returning vets who can’t find help elsewhere.
One major problem of the VA system is it denies veterans with less-than-honorable or dishonorable discharge coverage—something Dryhootch employees proudly say their organization doesn’t do.
In 2011 Dryhootch was awarded a grant from the Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program to survey local veterans about their use of the VA system and their time adjusting when they came home.
More than 800 individuals completed the survey, which found that more than 80 percent of respondents felt that the military taught them responsibility. However, more than half said their service negatively affected family relationships, more than 70 percent reported physical problems, and more than 60 percent reported emotional problems.
Many veterans turn to drugs and alcohol when trying to seek help and often are busted for nonviolent crimes like multiple DUIs or drug possession.
Veteran advocates believe the justice system isn’t the place to rehabilitate those who are suffering, and Dryhootch—which focuses on creating a substance-free environment—has created a relationship with the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office to adequately address these individuals. It's a partnership that has resulted in the formation of a "veteran court," which has been operating regularly since January.
“The evidence will show that when someone has an addiction, a therapeutic approach ultimately is likely to have better success helping them overcome that,” says Circuit Court Judge Ellen Brostrom.
Brostrom is one of several judges involved in the veteran court and says that many of the veterans she sees have PTSD from combat, and it’s directly correlated with substance use and abuse. In order for an offense to be considered in veteran court, it has to be nonviolent; and the individual has to be a veteran, have no prior record of violent offenses, and plead guilty to opt in to treatment.
“If they can make success of that solution, then they get some relief from the heavy hand of the criminal justice system,” Brostrom says.
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If the individual is successful in treatment, it could change his or her life, and the case could be dismissed. But if they can’t make it through, they’re sent back into the justice system.
Brostrom says she’s referred individuals to Dryhootch case managers for treatment and required them to go to various group meetings hosted by them.
“Nobody can communicate with these people the way someone who has walked in their shoes can,” she says. “They know what it means to have been fully enmeshed in the military culture … they’re really a tremendous resource for us in terms of peer mentors and court participants.”
But invisible scars take a lot of time to heal.
A 2,700-Mile Journey
On August 30, at the Wisconsin War Memorial overlooking Lake Michigan, Dryhootch employees and Iraq War veterans Anthony Anderson and Tom Voss hugged their wives and children goodbye. The mood was somber, as though they were going back to Iraq.
But they weren’t going to war, they were embarking on a very different journey. Anderson and Voss had decided to address their own issues as vets and raise money for Dryhootch by walking all the way to Los Angeles—2,700 miles.
Heal the Warrior, Heal the Country
The United States will not find peace until we take responsibility for our wars.
According to their estimated timeline, they plan on reaching their destination by the end of January 2014. They plan on relying on the hospitality of individuals and spreading the word about veterans’ issues.
Armed with laminated newspaper stories to prove their validity, they plan on asking strangers for places to sleep on their journey. They’ve also contacted local veteran groups to help them.
“In Iowa, we have a place to stay every night,” Anderson said before leaving. But the help is just trickling in. “The thing that sits worst for me, like in my gut,” Anderson says, “is that the vast majority of the support we’ve received has come from veterans and veteran organizations … I feel like I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
But despite any setbacks that may come, their determination is strong.
“Our message is that it’s a community effort,” Anderson says. “But it’s the veteran community that’s stepping up. That doesn’t surprise me … I’m still struggling to find a way to communicate that. Maybe I just need to be blunt.”
Below, Anthony Anderson and Tom Voss set out on their trek to Los Angeles (all photos by Ricardo Torres). Follow them on their journey here.