08/28/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

Dryhootch Makes a Difference

How much strength is there in a normal cup of coffee? Well, if you're a veteran and you stop by for a cup at the Dryhootch in Madison, Wisconsin, it could turn out to be the strongest cup of coffee you've ever had.

It may even save your life.

The latter point is not overstated. According to Anthony Anderson, Director of Dryhootch Madison, "We have had veterans say we've saved their lives."

"With veteran suicide numbers as they are," explains Anderson, "I don't think the veterans I've spoken to are exaggerating."

The reality is that while veterans comprise less than 8 percent of Wisconsin's population, they account for more than 20 percent of the state's suicides. Add to that the veterans who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, unemployment and homelessness, and you realize it's going to take more than a cup of coffee to help these men and women get back on their feet. But, at least it's a start, and that's what Dryhootch is all about.

Dryhootch (hootch refers to a soldier's living quarters in Vietnam, etc. and dry means that the establishment is substance-free) began in Milwaukee with a group of Vietnam veterans led by combat vet Bob Curry who vowed in 2003 that they would not let the next generation of veterans fall victim to the treatment they received when they returned home. Five years later, Dryhootch received a grant and used it to secure a mobile coffee truck that enabled it to conduct outreach. Volunteers sold coffee at various veteran and non-veteran events around town. In 2010, Dryhootch established a permanent location on Brady Street in Milwaukee, and by May of 2012 had opened a second, smaller location across the street from the Milwaukee Veterans Administration (VA) office as well as its location in Madison.

As Dryhootch founder Bob Curry likes to say "the mission of Dryhootch is to help the veterans and their families who survived the war to survive the peace."

Dryhootch does this by providing a safe, trusting, and substance-free environment for veterans, their families and non-veterans alike. According to Anderson, "it's a place created by veterans that is intended to provide peer-to-peer (vet-to-vet) mentoring and assistance."

"We also want the non-veteran community to come into our coffee shop and learn about the issues veterans are facing... and who we really are," he adds.

Anderson himself served as an infantryman in the Wisconsin Army National Guard from 2002-2008, volunteering for two deployments to Iraq in 2004-05 and 2007-08. He knows how hard it is to overcome the stereotypes and misconceptions about returning veterans.

"Sometimes it feels like non-veterans don't understand a veteran," he points out. "They think we're all crazy, uneducated, unemployable, or any other number of less than desirable perceptions. But, when we partner together, we show them that we were dedicated to service while in uniform, and we're still dedicated even after our service to our country."

While admitting that "many veterans want to speak to someone who knows where they're coming from," Anderson notes that Dryhootch "does not keep veterans from going to the VA or VA facilities."

"I have met many wonderful people at VA and Vet Center facilities, and I know that they are dedicated to their work," he explains. "But the VA is a bureaucracy and struggles to meet the demand... We are much more flexible and can meet veterans where they are -- in the community. Our programs are run by veterans. We are a nonprofit and we're independent, so what we want to do, we do. When veterans say they want something, we do all we can to provide it quickly."

Sometimes what a returning veteran can use is a song or a painting or a story. Studies show that the arts can play a key role in the recovery process. Dryhootch is sensitive to this as well, scheduling open mic sessions or Arts Saturdays as they did last weekend in Madison.

I've been a member of a veterans writing group, The Deadly Writers Patrol for several years and was joined at the Arts Saturday event by fellow Vietnam vet Bruce Meredith and active duty Army Sergeant Major Brian Bieniek. Between musical sets, we each shared a piece we'd written -- a mix of journaling, fiction and poetry -- to the 40 or so people who'd gathered, many of them veterans. You could feel the connections being made.

"Veterans want to tell their stories," adds Anderson. "They, like everyone else, want to be understood."

Dryhootch is facilitating that understanding, and healing. Contact them at or visit their website and find out what you can do to help. Or if you're in Milwaukee or Madison, stop by for a good cup of strong coffee.