A couple of years ago, Coffee Strong was only an idea. Fueled by their anger against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, recently discharged veterans Alex Bacon and Seth Manzel of Iraq Veterans Against the War felt a need for a coffee shop at Fort Lewis, Washington, where active duty soldiers could learn the full story behind the war, get counseling for military abuses, PTSD, and deployment issues.
Their research showed it would be very expensive, but they were dedicated, and found means. They founded G.I. Voice as a non-profit, initiated an anti-war coalition, and did massive outreach and fundraising at various events.
Veterans gave testimonials across the country to lawmakers and civilians at Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan. Veteran Michael William joined and they opened shop on November 5, 2008. They named it Coffee Strong, a play on the slogan Army Strong.
It was the second GI coffeehouse to open since Vietnam. The first was Different Drummer Café, at Fort Drum, NY. Recently, a third opened at Fort Hood, Texas, Coffee Under the Hood. The prolific coffee shops of the Vietnam antiwar movement were key to ending the war.
Like all military bases, Fort Lewis is isolated from the city and its resources. To combat this, not only do they offer counseling, but there is uncensored internet and literature available.
The coffee shop offers an important link between soldiers and antiwar activists. Generally, soldiers believe that the antiwar movement is hostile to them, and I think this is a good place to bridge that gap between the antiwar movement and soldiers, says Manzel.
Soldiers were scarce at first, but business has gradually picked up. Revenue has tripled and increasing numbers of soldiers are hearing about it and seeking it out for counseling. They host frequent hardcore shows, hip-hop shows, movie nights, and open mics.
Manzel explains the project is pretty fund-intensive. We need about $3,500 a month to stay above water, so we have to be very aggressive with fundraising. Also, we need volunteers and support as far as telling people about what we’re doing.
Along with the three founders, two other veterans, Andrew V. and Joshua Simpson keep the shop running. And volunteers play a huge role. William points out this place is run all through contributions from the community. We hope it will eventually become a self-sustaining project, just through the sale of coffee, but right now it’s financial contributions.
The activists and veterans involved hope the coffee shop will inspire soldiers and other activists. We can give them a new outlook on life, says William, and the will to regain their rights, which they’ve been told they don’t have.
There are many possible outlets for resistance, counter-military recruitment, and civil disobedience, such as the Port Military Resistance that took place at Fort Lewis two years ago to block shipments of arms to Iraq. Also, there is the potential to build more coffeehouses at other military bases.
Manzel hopes that [t]hrough promoting GI resistance, there will come a day when commanders will not have the faith in their soldiers to send them out to do the immoral things that they’re ordering them to do. And once that happens, the military can’t prosecute these wars anymore.
To help sustain Coffee Strong, you can donate at www.givoice.org or coffeestrong.com.