‘Ask better questions’: New Starbucks video stirs deeper discussions with Veterans

By Linda Dahlstrom / Starbucks Newsroom

A.J. Brotherton hadn’t been out of the Navy for long when it happened: he was hanging out with a few buddies when one of them learned he’d been in the military.

“He said, ‘Oh snap! Did you kill a lot of people?’” Brotherton remembered. “It’s like he thought it was video game, you know – what’s your kill count?”

Brotherton, who served as a medical corpsman, replied that he hadn’t killed anyone – but that it’s a hard and painful question for some. “I try to do some educating,” he said.

He’s now doing that on a broader scale in a new video, released by Starbucks today, encouraging people to really get to know Veterans and ask them better, deeper questions.

In the 30- and 60-second spots, Veterans like Brotherton, a Starbucks barista in Santee, California, and Veteran spouses are paired with civilians, who are real-life co-workers, for conversations about military life.

The aim is to help break the isolation Veterans and military spouses often feel, and start to build relationships, said Virginia Tenpenny, vice president of Global Social Impact at Starbucks. “What we can uniquely do at Starbucks is host conversations,” she said. “We are a venue to connect people.”

The video spots are part of Starbucks larger commitment to Veterans. On Monday, Starbucks stores will also begin featuring cup sleeves honoring Veterans and calling out the company’s hiring commitment.

Since 2013, the company has hired more than 10,000 veterans and military spouses and is planning to hire 15,000 more by 2025. The company also has a long tradition of donating coffee to deployed troops. By 2022, Starbucks plans to have opened 100 Military Family Stores, which are run primarily by veterans and military spouses, around the United States.

“The whole point is to help people understand the value of veterans and military spouses. We underestimate the incredible value they bring to communities and businesses,” said Matt Kress, a retired Marine who is a senior manager on the Social Impact team at Starbucks. “If people can start conversations in a positive way, it’s the first step to understanding. But many people don’t know what to ask.”

Less than 1 percent have served in armed forces

Tulie Barlow, a 22-year-old Starbucks barista who works with Brotherton, said she didn’t know he was a veteran until he began wearing a special Starbucks green apron embroidered with his Navy veteran status, alongside a U.S. flag.

She’d never known anyone in the Navy and was curious about his experience, but didn’t know if it was OK to ask him. So, she waited until one evening when the store was quiet to tentatively ask him about his service. She was surprised at how open he was and how much she learned that she hadn’t known, such as about the range of jobs people in the Navy do. The two are now friends.

When they were asked to appear in the video, they both embraced the chance to help educate people. “I just think people should be more open-minded,” she said.

In generations past, particularly when many soldiers were drafted, it seemed that nearly everyone know someone who had served. But that’s changed in more recent times, due to the end of conscription and an overall decline in the numbers of those in the military, said Kathy Roth-Douquet, chief executive officer of Blue Star Families, a non-profit that provides support to more than 1.5 million military families a year.

“In our country, we’ve come to a place where very few people serve – less than 1 percent – and it’s almost created a separate little society where people don’t know each other the way they used to,” said Roth-Douquet. “A lot of our military people say that in their communities they don’t actually know someone who is not in the military.”

That can lead to a sense of isolation for some veterans, active members of the military and military spouses, she said. According to a 2016 Blue Star Family survey, only 12 percent of veterans feel the public understands the sacrifices they and their families have made.

One way civilians can help change that is to start a conversation, said Roth-Douquet, whose husband served in the Marines for 30 years. A good entry point is to ask, “What made you or your family member decide to serve?” or “What were some of the best experiences you had during your military service?”, she said.

“The root cause of most of the challenges members of the military experience is isolation,” she said, noting she hopes the video will help to change that. “When we attack isolation, we really are making a difference.”

Breaking through stereotypes

Download video for media use

Manuel Salzedo, 23, said before he started working with Mark Anthony Alejo at a San Diego Starbucks, he didn’t have any friends who had served in the military. After he got to know Alejo, a 5-year Navy veteran who is married to a woman on active duty in the Navy, he was surprised to find out that as a hospital corpsman he’d worked in a medical clinic treating both civilians and those in the service.

“People talk about veterans and everybody thinks they’ve killed somebody,” said Salzedo, who appears in the video alongside Alejo. “But what Mark was doing was humanitarian – even helping locals. It’s a side of the military people don’t see.”

Alejo, 26, said he loves to have the chance to talk about his time in the military. One of his favorite questions is simply, “What did you do?”

It gives him a chance to help people see past the stereotypes, to understand the realities and some of the challenges veterans face. “When people really take time to talk to a veteran, they’ll find we are not all the same,” he said. “What you see in the movies isn’t what really happens.”

When Alejo left the Navy earlier this year, he initially had trouble getting a job, he said. Some employers assume that a veteran will have trouble adjusting to civilian life or won’t be happy outside the military.

But hiring veterans, said Tenpenny, makes companies better and communities more cohesive.

“Studies show veterans are more likely to vote, to volunteer and to donate. By connecting more Americans who are civic-minded, it’s contagious,” she said.

One of the people she hired was Kress, who had been in the Marines from 1994 to 2015. He spent the last 10 years in the reserves while working as a firefighter, and also earned a Master of Business Administration degree. But even so, when he left the military and was ready to change jobs, some potential employers questioned how he’d do outside the regimented world of the military.

Now, in his role at Starbucks, he works on a range of veterans’ efforts including the Military Family Store Program, military-focused benefits programs, partnerships with veteran service organizations and veteran advocacy and campaigns.

He said he hopes that the video sparks some good discussions between civilians, veterans and military spouses.

“If people can start to communicate in a positive way,” he said, “it will help them see and unlock the value of veterans.”

Read more:

25 questions Veterans and military spouses love to answer
Meet the Veterans and military spouses featured in the video
Today, Americans know fewer Veterans than any other generation

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