A Courage to Resist interview with Alex Bacon, Coffee Strong co-founder and staff member

Courage to Resist recently contributed $500 to the reopening of Coffee Strong. We ask our supporters to also consider contributing to Coffee Strong. Donate here.

By Bob Meola, Courage to Resist. September 11, 2013

In November, 2008, the day after the presidential election, a few people—recent veterans and their civilian supporters started Coffee Strong, a GI coffee house outside the gates of Joint Base Lewis McChord, a combination of the Army’s Fort Lewis and the Air Force’s McChord Air Force Base. They had met at Evergreen State College as students. They had seen films and read about the GI Resistance of the Vietnam era.

“We wondered what our experiences would have been like, if [as service members] we’d had resources like Oleo Strut [the GI Coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas during the Vietnam War],” said Alex Bacon, a co-founder and present staff member of Coffee Strong.

Alex went on to tell me more about Coffee Strong. “We had GI Rights counselors helping folks in the service and encouraging vets and service members to participate in the anti-war movement. It was mostly walk-ins. We were just a couple blocks away from the main gates of the base. We had advertising in our windows. At a high point, we had 300 to 350 soldiers in there every month. We operated the coffeehouse for four years. It culminated last August [2012] as part of Operation Recovery. We went on base every day for a month, four to five days a week, doing outreach. The soldiers that we met that were interested in standing up for their rights were soldiers that had been deployed and needed to heal. We had a small GI Rights program. We realized we had to have a greater capacity, a bigger program that had more expertise and more GI Rights counseling. Supporting a soldier through the medical board process is a very labor intensive process. There was no one doing that up here in the Pacific Northwest, except for us.

“For the first four years, we served coffee, had music shows, movie nights, presentations, poker nights, and open mic events. We had a lot of resources. But we were connecting GIs and vets with other organizations. We weren’t providing services ourselves. Now we are providing four services.

“The first is GI Rights Counseling. It is non-directive counseling to help soldiers clarify their own goals and accomplish those goals. Typically, those goals are, ‘I want to get out of the military. I don’t want to get kicked out with a bad conduct discharge’ and filing grievances against abusive commands.

“The second service we provide is helping vets file disability claims with the Veterans Administration [now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs]. The third service we provide is discharge upgrades. When a veteran has an other-than-honorable discharge, we attempt to upgrade the characterization of that discharge so that the veteran will be eligible for more benefits. Half of the people who come in for discharge upgrades are African-American. It seems to indicate that racism is still alive in the military. It is still surprising to know the numbers to be that skewed.

“The discharge upgrades bring a lot of volunteers to Coffee Strong too. These are veterans in the community who have been wronged and they come in to volunteer, to do intake and do other things to help and participate in the Coffee Strong community.

“The fourth service that Coffee Strong now provides is a civil law legal clinic for veterans and service members and military families.

“Those are the services we are providing. One of our goals is to get veterans and service members and military families to be the people providing these services as a way to build the leadership of these people.

“We’re trying to build our community of anti-war veterans, service members, and military families.

“We refer people out for legal assistance beyond what we are able to provide in our clinic.

“We do refer people out for mental health counseling and physical and mental health evaluations.

“We closed our door at the end of 2012, at our old location. We moved out of our coffeehouse and literally moved right next door. We re-opened in our new location in April of this year. We still have free coffee. We no longer have the big fancy espresso machine. Our new space is about twice as big as our old space. Our public space is about the same size as the old coffeehouse. But now we have room in the back for offices and a conference room and a meeting room.

“We have two paid staff people whose role is to encourage participation of people in our community. We are both co-founders of Coffee Strong. Andrew was in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2004 and deployed to Iraq. I was in the Coast Guard from 2001 to 2003.

“We are trying to support the work of the broader peace and justice movements by bringing the voices of veterans, service members, and military families to those movements. In the winter of this year, we worked with anti-war organizations in the northwest by bringing pressure on Senator Patrick Murray to support targeted cuts to the Pentagon budget in order to free up money for essential social services.

“We’re coordinating and encouraging vets to speak in schools and to young people, in general, about their experiences in the military—not to tell them not to join the military, but to provide a different perspective than the recruiters and the media. But our goal is actually to discourage them from joining the military.

“We get invited into classrooms by teachers. A number of veterans who have come to Coffee Strong have become teachers in our community.

“Right now, we’re looking to add some political education components to our work. For the fall, we want to show films and have discussions about political topics of the day. We’re working with Under the Hood in Texas and Clearing Barrell in Germany [two other GI coffeehouses] to put together a west coast tour in 2014 to share with people what we’re doing and to build political support for doing GI outreach.

“At Coffee Strong, we have a small budget. It’s $120,000 a year, almost all from individual donors and primarily in the northwest, but across the country as well. That gives us the freedom, as an organization, to decide what our work looks like. We are accountable to our own community and its needs. We welcome donations. We are a 501c3 nonprofit organization. People can make tax deductible donations to Coffee Strong at coffeestrong.org.”

Courage to Resist recently contributed $500 to the reopening of Coffee Strong. We ask our supporters to also consider contributing to Coffee Strong. Donate here.