A Gold Star Wife Reflects on Starbucks Commitment to Military Spouses

For an instant, Susan tried to defy reality. An Air Force base commander wearing dress blues and a priest stood at her doorway, but she wouldn’t let them cross the threshold.

She had been waiting for confirmation that her husband, 1st Lt. Eric Hedeen, was among the survivors of a B-52 that crashed returning from a bombing mission in the Persian Gulf.

Lt. Hedeen was part of a six-member crew returning from a combat flight during Operation Desert Storm on February 3, 1991. The bomber suffered mechanical problems as it returned to base in Diego Garcia, a remote island in the Indian Ocean. All engines failed when the plane was about 2,000 feet over water on the landing approach, causing the airmen to eject from the plane.

Three crewmembers survived the ejection and were rescued from the ocean amid B-52 wreckage, aviation fuel and flames. The three other men were unable to eject safely and died instantly.

Facing her priest and base commander at her doorstep, eight hours after she learned of the crash, Susan was unable to suspend time any longer. The looks on their faces and soft tones of their voices confirmed what she knew. Her husband was gone.

“The last time I saw Eric he was blowing me a kiss,” she said. “That’s a pretty good last moment.”

Twenty-three years later it is still understandably difficult for Susan Brye to discuss what she calls “the thing in my life that still makes me cry.”

Brye – who now manages litigation for Starbucks as a director, corporate counsel – seldom talks about that time period of her life. But with Veterans Day approaching, she agreed to reflect on her late husband’s service and sacrifice, and her company’s support of military spouses.

Today Starbucks was named one of the top 100 Military Spouse Friendly Employers® for 2015 in a list released by G.I. Jobs. The 100 employers listed represent only two percent of more than 5,000 eligible companies whose annual revenues exceeded $500 million. The list, verified by Ernst & Young LLP, serves as a benchmark of corporate recruiting programs aimed at veterans.

“When you’re a military spouse, you’re in the military too. You don’t have the epaulet or the medals, but you’re there,” Susan said. “You’re all in.”

All American dream

Eric was the definition of all-American: a straight-A student, clean cut kid who grew up on an apple orchard in Washington State. Wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps of military service, Eric entered the Air Force through an ROTC program at Washington State University. It was at WSU where he met Susan.

The college sweethearts married in June of 1989 and started what Susan described as a “magical adventure” together.

“We were newlyweds just having fun being kids,” said Susan, who was 23 years old at the time. Eric was 27. “Then Iraq invaded Saudi Arabia. When you’re married to active-duty military, you know what that means.”

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (later captured, tried and executed) had ordered the invasion of neighboring Kuwait in August of 1990. Hussein defied United Nations Security Council demands to withdraw from Kuwait by January 1991. The Persian Gulf War began with a massive U.S.-led air offensive known as Operation Desert Storm.

Lt. Hedeen, an electronic-warfare officer, was with a B-52 squad sent to the Middle East on January 16, 1991 He was committed to his work and determined to make a difference serving our country.

Susan watched her husband go off to war knowing it was “serious business,” she said, but “always thinking he would come back home.”

Freedom is not cheap

A couple of days before Valentine’s Day 1991, Lt. Hedeen was laid to rest with full military honors in his hometown of Wenatchee, Washington. Gerald Hedeen, Eric’s father and a former Air Force fighter pilot, said at the funeral, “Freedom is not cheap. I think Eric exemplified the best of his generation.”

Still in shock, Susan doesn’t remember much from that day, but she vividly recalls seeing veterans of past wars form a semi-circle, in uniform at the grave site, standing at attention.

“I remember thinking most of these guys never saw this outpouring of support and respect when they returned home,” she said. “To this day I don’t know who organized that. I would love to know. It was extraordinary.”

Susan has since remarried and has two children. She also became a leading advocate for the inclusion of military spouses in the veterans hiring commitment Starbucks announced one year ago. Starbucks has hired almost 2,000 veterans, reservists and military spouses in the past year. It intends to hire 2,000 during the next year and at least 10,000 by the end of 2018.

“I can’t say enough about how proud I am that we are doing the right thing, for the right reason” Susan said, adding that “Eric would also be proud.”

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New, more sustainable Starbucks cold cups are made with up to 20 percent less plastic