Starbucks has hired more than 15,000 veterans and military spouses in the last five years. Each small, embroidered American flag on the right side of their special aprons is a portal to countless stories of duty and commitment – packing tape and moving boxes; letters and video calls; long absences and joyful reunions; family and chosen family; courage and love.
In honor of Military Spouse Appreciation Day on May 11, three Starbucks military spouses shared their own stories of learning to thrive in swirling uncertainty, building a family in every new town and making the most out of every moment.
Part One: An Air Mattress in Enid, Oklahoma
Uncertainty, resilience, and waking up on an air mattress in a strange, new place called home – these are feelings many military spouses know well.
Rachael Bialcak experienced all three one day in June 2014 when she woke up in Enid, Okla., after a dizzying few months of change.
That spring she’d been attending college, working as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) and living at home in Utah when her fiancé, Air Force 1st Lt. Clinton J. Bialcak, got his first orders much earlier than expected. The couple decided to move their wedding date up by almost a year. He graduated from college in April, they were married two days later, and two weeks after that their belongings and unopened wedding gifts were packed for the drive to Oklahoma.
The morning they left, Rachael Bialcak, then 19, held it together through the hugs and pictures and goodbyes. But when she got into her car and saw a box full of her favorite travel snacks in the passenger seat – packed lovingly by her mother – she could no longer contain the tears. As her childhood home faded in the rear-view mirror, reality started to set in – no more spontaneous pedicures with her mom or trips to the golf course with her dad or seeing her tightknit extended family every week. For the first time in her life, she felt scared.
Then the walkie talkie next to her crackled and she heard the voice of her new husband radioing from his car just ahead of hers on the road out of town.
“I love you,” he said. “I don’t want you crying.” He told her jokes to cheer her up and promised everything was going to be OK; his father served, too, so he was well acquainted with the uncertainty of military life. She wanted to believe him, but on their first Monday morning in Enid – after he dressed in his uniform and reported for work at nearby Vance Air Force Base – she was still unsure.
“He kissed me goodbye and went to work, and then it was just me, sitting in this empty apartment on an air mattress surrounded by suitcases and nothing else – no furniture or pictures, no food or shower curtain, no TV or internet,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘I can’t just sit here for the next eight hours,’ so I took out my phone and searched for coffee shops. I figured a coffee shop would have Wi-Fi and people, and I kind of needed both.”
She drove to a nearby Starbucks, ordered a vanilla latte and sat at the counter. She visited with the baristas and other customers, who told her about all the good restaurants in town and schooled her on the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA team.
“I spent eight hours at Starbucks that day,” she said. “I started off feeling scared and nervous, but the people there made me feel like I was part of a family.”
She was so enamored that an hour before she left she applied for a job. She was hired as a barista a couple of weeks later.
“My husband and I like to say everything always happens for a reason,” she said.
Four years and two moves later, each time her husband gets a permanent change of station (PCS), Rachael Bialcak’s managers at Starbucks helped her find a job near her new home. Bialcak finished her bachelor’s degree in business communications from Arizona State University online and debt-free as part of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP) along the way, and also earned two promotions at work. She is now the assistant manager of a Starbucks Military Family Store in Ridgecrest, Calif.
Starbucks has designated 42 locations near major military bases as Military Family Stores. Many are staffed by veterans and military spouses, which helps the stores function as hubs of support for the military community but a cultural bridge between military and non-military customers. There will be 132 open by 2022. Starbucks has hired more than 15,000 veterans and military spouses since 2013 and has committed to hiring 25,000 by 2025.
Bialcak said the lobby in her store in Ridgecrest, a town adjacent to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, is packed all day with a mix of veterans, active military members, military families and civilians. The store features subtle nods to its community – military-themed photos and illustrations and a large sign that reads, “This store is dedicated to people united by their courage to support our country.”
“It’s an important place for everyone to connect, whether it’s our regulars, or the new people who come in,” she said. “My mother-in-law told me that wherever the military took us, there will always be a family there. My first week here I was sweeping the lobby when a retired Marine asked me about my story. When I told him where we’d been so far, he said, ‘You’re just starting a wonderful journey. The next 20 years are going to flash before you. Enjoy every moment.’ Those are the kinds of things that happen all the time around here. That’s why I love the Military Family Stores. We can all relate on some level.”
Her husband said he is thrilled and thankful she ended up at Starbucks that first day in Enid, Okla.
“Since that day, Starbucks has been one of the biggest blessings in our lives. I was scared Rachael wouldn't have a career she could transfer from state to state as I move,” he said. “The company has gone above and beyond to support her career aspirations and allow her to continuously move up in the company across three different states. This means the world to me, because I didn't want my wife to have her goals and aspirations diminished because I chose to serve my country.”
Bialcak, now 23, said one of these days a bewildered military spouse will wander into her store on their first day in a new town, and she will be ready.
“That day in Enid had such an impact on me,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to join Starbucks. I want to help people, complete strangers, feel that same love and comfort.”
Part Two: A goodbye, and a good cry
Last fall, Kyle Trombley drove his husband, Army Maj. Christopher B. Garrett, to Fort Polk and sat with him until it was time for Garrett to board a bus and then a plane. Garrett went to Iraq, and Trombley got back in the car, had a good cry and drove home alone. It was the fifth farewell of this kind – the deployment kind – in their nearly 15 years together.
“He’s only gone for nine months this time, but still, it’s very emotional. That never changes,” Trombley said. “You’re saying ‘Goodbye’ but wondering if this is a ‘See you later’ or an actual goodbye. You don’t know.”
Military life brings a host of challenges and complications, but to Trombley, these long separations are by far the most challenging part.
“I feel like we’ve been apart more than we’ve been together over the last 14 years, although he’s always there for me no matter if he’s halfway across the country or on the other side of the world,” Trombley said. “It’s hard, because you never know what’s going to happen. I know that’s true of life in general, not just having a loved one in the military, but this just adds that much more.”
Before he was a military spouse, Trombley was an “Army brat.”
“I’ve always been a military something,” he said, laughing.
Trombley’s father was in the Army, and he had a happy (if far-flung) childhood in Germany, Colorado, Oklahoma and North Carolina. After meeting Garrett at Campbell University in North Carolina, Trombley followed his love to Missouri, Washington, Louisiana and, shortly after Garrett returns from deployment in May, the couple have new orders to report to Illinois.
Growing up an Army brat and marrying someone in the Army means Trombley has gotten used to the constant change military life brings, although it’s never easy. No matter how many times military families move, each relocation is packed with complicated emotions and logistics. There’s the big stuff – finding a new home (and sometimes schools) and making new friends. There’s the little stuff – finding new dentists, doctors and hair stylists. For many military spouses, relocation also means having to hit reset on the career button time and time again.
This is why Trombley was unemployed for a couple of months after Garrett relocated to Tacoma, Wash., to work at Joint Base Lewis–McChord. Garrett encouraged him to take the time to explore his options, and after doing some research, Trombley decided to pursue a job at Starbucks.
“I wanted to be able to transfer within the company and actually build a career instead of just having to constantly have to start from square one,” Trombley said. “There has not been one moment where I ever regretted that decision.”
On his first day of work as a barista in a Military Family Store, he had a momentary flashback to his youth and the apprehension of starting at a new school without knowing anyone. That feeling did not last.
“Being a military spouse is one of the hardest jobs out there, and to have somebody that you work with who knows that experience and what it’s like to go through that – it’s just like an instant connection,” Trombley said. “Starbucks from day one has become my second family. The people I worked with, our customers – we share many of the same struggles. It’s not just a place to work.”
Trombley now manages a store in Lake Charles, La., and when he and Garrett relocate to Illinois this summer, he will be opening and managing a new store there.
“To be a new store manager, and to transfer and be given a new store to open – it’s the ultimate store manager’s dream,” Trombley said.
Trombley said he recently started teasing his husband, a logistics expert, that he should consider a career at Starbucks when he retires from the Army. It started out as a joke, but Garrett said after watching his husband’s career transfer and blossom even as they navigate the challenges of military life, his interest is sparked.
“Kyle’s story with is a testament that the company truly cares for not only career progression but the actual well-being of their employees,” Garrett said.
Part Three: Holding Down the Forts
Esther Ortega-Johnson and Navy Chief Petty Officer James S. Johnson, Jr., met in 2008 at Starbucks in San Antonio. Well, at a Starbucks employee meeting. She was a store manager from California navigating her first week in Texas. He was an assistant store manager and one of the first people to walk up and say hello to her. The two didn’t see each other again for six months, when he joined her district as a manager and she mentored him as he opened a new store.
Slowly, their discussions about work expanded to include the rest of their lives: the pain of their recent divorces; their kids – her young son and his teenage daughters; his deployment to Kuwait years earlier and his ongoing service in the Navy Reserve. By 2009, the couple of Starbucks store managers were a couple.
As a reservist, Johnson would work one weekend a month and attend training a few weeks a year, but it was predictable and routine. Even so, both knew that could change in a heartbeat, and in in January 2010, it did. Haiti was hit with a 7.0 earthquake that killed thousands of people and devastated the country’s infrastructure. The couple discussed the possibility of Johnson being deployed on a relief mission, but he didn’t think they’d call in reserves. Two days later the Navy sent papers. Johnson would leave the next day. He was deployed for three months to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as part of the earthquake relief mission.
Ortega-Johnson held down the fort at home. As much as she missed him, she felt terrible for his daughters, and visited with them every chance she got. For Johnson, this support brought tremendous peace of mind while he was away.
“This is a monumental task, for one person to suddenly have to take on the responsibility of managing a full household,” Johnson said. “I’ve appreciated her unwavering support of my military career. She’s the bedrock of our home.”
Because his Starbucks was located close to hers, she also managed both of their stores while he was away.
“It was pretty smooth while he was gone,” Ortega-Johnson said. “Our district manager was very supportive of the military and of him, both when he was managing a store as a reservist, and when he was deployed. She was like, ‘What do you need, when do you need it?’”
The separation ultimately made them stronger. The two married a year later, in 2011. Johnson retired from the Navy Reserve and now works as director of operations for a local bakery. Ortega-Johnson was recently promoted to regional operations specialist for Starbucks.
“Honestly, it’s really amazing to work for a company that offers this kind of support,” she said. “When you’re in the military, or married to someone who serves, there are already so many other things you have to worry about. Starbucks has helped me not just take care of my own family, but to find ways to support others who are going through the same thing as well.”
Learn more about the company’s commitment to veterans here.