Dryhootch wants to make difference for vets

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, October 5, 2013

JANESVILLE--Christopher Lovejoy calls an informal gathering of vets in Janesville the highlight of his week.

The jobless Army veteran gave technical support to a military intelligence unit in Iraq. He is proud of his service but turned into a self-described ghost of his former self after serving in the war.

“I have memory problems,” he said. “I have problems concentrating. I suffer from insomnia.”

Lovejoy is one of a handful of vets who volunteer at Rock County Dryhootch. The group provides support and important information to veterans and their families.

“We share a lot of camaraderie,” he said. “We also share understanding because we all have been there. Civilians don't grasp what we are talking about. It's fun to shoot the breeze with other vets who understand.”

Lovejoy has Vietnam combat veteran Bob Curry to thank.

In 2008, Curry and other Vietnam vets vowed not to let a new generation of returning veterans fall victim to the same ill treatment they got when coming home. Curry founded the first Dryhootch coffeehouse in Milwaukee to reach out to veterans. His nonprofit group now has coffeehouses in Milwaukee, Appleton and Madison.

The name Dryhootch comes from the word “hootch,” which is what servicemen in Vietnam called a safe place to sleep. Hootch also is a play on the word's association with alcohol. The word “dry” denotes that the group's mission is to provide a social gathering place free of alcohol.

Open to all veterans, the Rock County group meets in the American Red Cross building, but it is looking for a place to set up a permanent coffee shop. Ryan Lonergan is director of the new Dryhootch and has big dreams.

He envisions an inviting coffeehouse, where people who survived the war can find tools to survive the peace. The 26-year-old Iraq War veteran knows that some vets are still replaying the war in their heads, and they hesitate to talk about it.

“Dryhootch can help,” Lonergan said. “We offer peer-to-peer mentoring, The thing that sets us apart from other groups is that we are about vets talking to vets. We look out for each other.”

Tracy Brandt of Dryhootch explained the importance of an alcohol-free environment.

“We're finding that substance abuse goes hand in hand with post traumatic stress disorder,” she said. “Veterans will do anything to not feel what they are feeling. It's too easy to turn to alcohol to keep the demons at bay.”

She is concerned about the more than 900 suicides among Wisconsin vets since Sept. 11, 2001.

“They are having a hard time making the transition,” she said. “They are going from the military, where someone told them what to do every day in high stress situations, to civilian life. We realize how important it is to educate and support family members as well.”

The group encourages vets to get appropriate care for mental health issues through Veterans Affairs or private practices.

“But we are finding that many are not doing it,” Brandt said. “It seems they are willing to go to the VA for physical ailments, but when it comes to mental health issues, some are reluctant. We try to offer a support system. We want to be there for veterans so they don't take their own lives.”

Brandt served with the U.S. Air Force, is trained in peer mentoring and coordinates volunteers for Rock County Dryhootch.

She said some vets don't seek mental health treatment because they believe it will hurt their chances of employment.

“One veteran told me that he was honest with his potential employer about his post traumatic stress disorder,” Brandt said. “He did not get hired, and he thinks it is because of the PTSD. We need to do more community education about how it affects vets and how to help vets who have it.”

The Milton woman said volunteers of Dryhootch are willing to meet with veterans in their homes.

“Sometimes veterans don't like being in a group,” she said. “We can meet them one-on-one where they want to be. Dryhootch makes them feel welcome and accepted. It's a first stop.”

Sarah Carter of Janesville was never in the military, but she has a relationship with a man who was.

“He shut off because of post traumatic stress,” she said. “It was like living with a ghost in the house.”

She considers herself resourceful, but she could not find help for him.

“I run the Dryhootch support group for family and friends of vets,” she said. “I want to make sure they have the resources that I did not have.”

She and other Dryhootch volunteers invite veterans to see what they have to offer.

“I would like them to come one time,” Brandt said. “I would like them to chat and have some home-baked goods with us. If they don't like it, they don't have to come back.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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