Starbucks expands support to veterans’ mental health

Starbucks has hired 26,000 veterans since 2013 with a commitment to hire more and has recently added additional mental health benefits. On Veterans Day, Starbucks will donate 25 cents for every cup of brewed coffee sold nationwide to non-profits Team Red, White and Blue and Team Rubicon.

On a late summer evening in 2013, Mike Washington stopped by Stanley and Seafort’s, a restaurant in Tacoma, Wash., and finished off a New York strip steak. He had a few drinks, paid the bill in cash and went outside, walking until he arrived at the bridge over East 26th Street. He climbed on top of the concrete barrier at the edge, steadied himself against a light pole and wondered if he should jump.

“A sense of failure, an inability to cope, a fairly sudden realization that I’m in over my head,” says Washington, 57, trying to explain his thinking that night. “Combine that with shame and guilt and this felt like the only outlet. Let me do this and be done with it.”

Washington had always been the rock. Bald head. Linebacker frame. The guy everyone called “Top.” A Master Sergeant and counter-intelligence Marine who fought wars all over the globe. He prided himself on being “the pointy end of the spear.” A career firefighter after his service, he always rushed in.   

But at that moment, his mind was foggy and he was broken and beat. Five years earlier, his 20-year-old son, Michael, also a Marine, died with three other Marines while serving in Afghanistan, victims of a roadside improvised explosive device. The death was a watershed moment for Washington, unleashing bottled-up memories from childhood, accelerating destructive behaviors and causing suicidal ideations.

More than 6,000 U.S. veterans died by suicide every year between 2008 and 2017, according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, released in September by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition, studies have found that veterans deal with issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress at rates higher than the civilian population. Washington, who was previously recognized as a Starbucks Upstander, is partnering with Starbucks again to help companies better understand the veterans story.

On this Veterans Day, Starbucks affirms its commitment to our country’s military personnel, their families and their mental health. Starbucks believes that veterans and military spouses make our company better and our communities stronger. In fact, Starbucks has hired more than 26,000 veterans and military spouses, to help ease their transition out of service, exceeding a goal set in 2013. The company is committed to hiring 5,000 more annually going forward.

Starbucks also dedicated its 62nd Military Family Store on Oct. 11 in Aberdeen, Md., with plans to dedicate 70 more by 2022, so soldiers, veterans and their families can have a shared space. These stores are typically near military bases and are usually staffed by veterans and their spouses.

And, in 2019, the Starbucks Foundation awarded more than $750,000 in grants to support veterans causes. One of the recent recipients is We Are The 22, a nonprofit based out of Conway, Ark., trying to help combat veteran suicide through direct, peer-based intervention.

Supporting mental health

In September, responding to feedback from its veterans community as well as its field partners, Starbucks announced a new mental health initiative which will increase employee access to mental health resources, training and care. Starbucks aspires to meet the unique needs of the veterans community and be a corporate leader in breaking the stigma around mental health through resources, advocacy and partnerships.

On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, Starbucks will donate 25 cents for every cup of brewed coffee sold nationwide to be split equally between non-profits Team Rubicon, for their work mobilizing veterans to respond to disasters and humanitarian crises around the world, and Team Red, White and Blue, for their “Ending Isolation” campaign. In addition, all veterans, active service members and their spouses will receive a free cup of coffee at participating stores.

“Despite the continuing tragedy of veteran suicide, I am encouraged that honest conversation about mental health is emerging,” says Matt Kress, Starbucks senior manager of Veteran and Military Affairs, a 22-year Marine Corps veteran and a retired firefighter and EMT. “Veterans of all ranks and age are being more open about their challenges, which is the first step in breaking down the societal stigma around mental health.”

Coming back from the edge

For Washington, the retired Marine, his brush with suicide was the long, lonely end result of years of internalizing his experiences. As a child growing up in Hawaii and then southern California, he was molested and lived amidst poverty, alcoholism, hunger and abuse. During his career as a Marine, he saw the horrors on the Highway of Death between Kuwait and Iraq, fought in a civil war in Bosnia, deployed to Afghanistan and east Africa. Back home, as a Seattle firefighter, he walked into strange houses and sometimes saw people die.

The low point came June 14, 2008, the day his son died. He was at Fire Station 16 in the Greenwood neighborhood in Seattle when a suburban pulled up with his wife inside. A casualty officer walked out. It was like a movie, he says, and he knew right away that Michael was dead.

After each of those hard moments in his life, what didn’t help, Washington says, were the unhealthy messages that bubbled up, often self-inflicted: Don’t be weak. Man up. Be strong. Suck it up. Quit your complaining. Other people have it worse than you. Get over it.

“All those things you just put away, because that’s what you’re supposed to do with this stuff. You just keep putting these bricks in your backpack,” Washington says. “That backpack is pretty heavy after a while and you compensated for it and compensated for it. And at some point, everything can come crashing back down on you.

“You know, inside, I’m just crumbling. I’m imploding.”   

What brought him back from the edge, literally Washington believes, was his son, a kind and caring boy who was born deaf in one ear, who took seriously his role as “man of the house” when his father was deployed. At 20, Michael was a squad leader, in charge of 12 other Marines, and was promoted to Sergeant in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, Golf Company, with less than three years of experience.

As the elder Washington contemplated suicide that summer night, he felt “almost a physical pull” that knocked him back onto the bridge. He describes it like this: “My son, when I was ready to go over, saying, ‘Dad, this is not where your story ends. There’s more work for you to do out there and people need to hear your story, so they don’t go down this path.’ And I honestly believe that was his doing.”

The path to stability has been hard. He got divorced. He went to therapy. He struggled to contain a volatile mix of alcohol, violence and emotions.

But he also started to speak about his experiences to young soldiers at nearby Fort Lewis, including those who knew his son. He met Valerie, an Army veteran radio operator, who shared his struggles and kept him accountable. They married three years ago and take ballroom dance lessons together.

He became the critical incident stress debriefer for the Seattle Fire Department so he could guide others through trauma – he works with Engine 27 in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood – and volunteered with veterans’ service organizations like Team Rubicon so he could use his unique skills and help out with disaster responses.

Recently, with Team Rubicon, Washington was able to deploy together to the Bahamas with his daughter, Aja, a Korean linguist with the Army and now an ICU nurse, in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian. A blessing, he says.

The outbursts still occasionally flare up, and Washington knows he’ll need a lifelong maintenance plan. He recently earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California. He wants to continue his work with veterans and first responders to get them whatever help they need.

“There’s a lot like me, OK?” Washington says. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel here, by doing these things, by getting the help. I put my hand up and you know, I’m working through the shame and the guilt, and getting over my self-image of who I think I am.”

Life after the military 

One of the biggest tension points for veterans is the transition away from military life. George Page, a Starbucks store manager in Escondido, Calif., was a Marine for 27 years, retiring as the Marine Corps Community Services operations chief. He and his team rolled satellite communications systems into combat outposts so that Marines could call home and use the internet.

He describes his experience back to civilian life as more of a “transformation.”

“When we join the military, we are transformed into a U.S. Marine, and then we live that life,” Page says. “And then we come out, and the civilian population recognizes our service but not necessarily the transformation that came with that service, and we need to learn how to transform back.

“The corporate world doesn’t necessarily get us.”

Page, 52, has had to learn how to change his posture in front of store partners who have no military experience and to laugh, smile and use humor to defuse stressful situations. Part of the first wave of 10,000 hired in 2013 as part of Starbucks’ veterans hiring initiative, Page wants to dispel the myth that all veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress.  

Joshua Evans, a Starbucks store manager in Frederick, Md., located west of Baltimore, says it was difficult to translate his military experience into a resume that fit what employers wanted. He was a chemical operations specialist who worked on bomb patrols with the Army. On deployment in Kuwait, he herniated a disc moving 150-pound shields off military Humvees. Doctors put a titanium rod in his back. He pivoted to satellite communications and retired from the military in 2015 after his body started to break down.

“It gets to the point where you wake up in the morning, and you’re mapping out which job fairs you’re going to,” Evans explains. “By the end of the day, you’re home online, doing regular daddy household stuff, on job sites, employment websites, looking for stuff, figuring how to translate these amazing skills you got in the military and trying to word them right for a civilian audience. That’s a daily thing.

“You go to sleep answering questions to the wife of why that interview didn’t work out, and why that opportunity didn’t work out, and the stress just starts building. We dwindled through savings. Bills are starting to stack up. Watching your credit score drop. I don’t want to be late on a house payment. All the stressors start amplifying massively.”

‘They give us a place and welcome us’

He was standing in line at a job fair at Nationals Park, where the Washington D.C. professional baseball team plays, when a Starbucks recruiter – a former Marine – approached him. He interviewed right away with some district managers and within a few months, he was managing his own store. 

“Starbucks has gotten it right because they give us a place and they welcome us,” Evans says. “It’s given that sense of community back.”

Evans also found relief on the water. He’s now a competitive kayak fisherman who takes other veterans out on the water to find a bit of freedom and peace of mind. He’s trying to start a movement called #catch22, a hashtag for comprehensive fishing therapy resources for veterans.

“In the military, if something bad goes down, you’re trained to respond and react to people who come at you with aggression,” Evans says. “You have to retrain yourself to not respond that way. You have to take it for what it is and still find a way to be cordial and professional and polite. There are parallels with the military in the taking care of people aspect of it (as a Starbucks store manager). But the way you approach your day and the way you approach your negatives and positives, those are different, there’s a lot of adjustment there.

“I’ve found a lot of growth in myself in the last couple years as a person,” he says. “I’ve dialed that stuff down to be a guider, a mentor and a source of positivity and growth in our community, and do all these things that before I was in the Army, that were not ever even a thought.”

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