Supporting veterans through coffee, conversation and connection

A man in his sixties and in a wheelchair held a small American flag and sang “God Bless America” to himself before the sun rose. A line formed behind him on a wintry Thursday morning at the entrance to South Seattle College, as veterans gathered to take advantage of services that included medical, dental, mental health, job placement, housing placement and clothing.

Duane Anderson, a veteran who served for 23 years, explained his struggle as tears filled his eyes.

“The guys are getting help and that’s very necessary,” Anderson said. “It’s just a special bond between vets and it can’t be explained.”

As many as 350 veterans took advantage of The Seattle Stand Down, an effort made over two days every December to provide veterans with one-stop access to a myriad of specialized services, a hot meal and a cup of warm coffee.

“When I see comrades in arms in such need, I feel like if we’re not helping there, what are we doing?” said Spencer Bowen, an active duty reservist who spent 10 years in the Air Force before becoming a project manager at Starbucks. “I wanted to work for a company that had more than just the bottom line as part of their mission, and to inspire and nurture the human spirit.”

For the past three years, volunteers with Starbucks Armed Forces Network (AFN), a group providing support to co-workers who are active duty military, veterans or military spouses, have joined the Seattle Stand Down.

“We work for Starbucks. Some of us are veterans,” Bowen said. “But, we care about you, and that’s why we are here.”

For the past three years, Bowen has coordinated the AFN volunteer team that meets before dawn to brew containers of coffee and deliver warm cups to veterans who offer meaningful stories in return.

“They’re not people who are looking for a handout,” Bowen said. “These are people who need a hand up.”

“A lot of these guys are the same guys who came back from Vietnam and got spit on,” Duane Anderson said, waiting in the registration line. “They remember that. And it hurts.”

Another veteran waiting for the doors to open, Joseph Aiken, squinted as the rising sun hit his eyes. “We don’t leave anybody behind. That means in war zones or the streets, as well,” he said. “Be good to each other. Always, always, always.”

Thomas Cartwright, an Iraq War veteran, looked up from his newspaper long enough to say he hoped to get a haircut after registration. Compassion is the word he used to describe the scene around him. “Empathy for less fortunate people. It’s contagious.”

The man in the wheelchair, the veteran who held the American flag as he sang, doesn’t drink coffee, but his gratitude for the Stand Down volunteers did not discriminate. “Today they are serving us,” he said as the doors opened. “And we thank you from the bottom of our hearts because God blesses America. Thank you!”

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5 things to know about first-ever Starbucks Promises Day