Dryhootch employee Abbey Manalli helps out with the Rebuilding Together project on Aug. 27. Photo by Tom Strattman

Rebuilding together

Dryhootch of America officially opened its first veterans center in Milwaukee with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Aug. 27 that included American Legion National Commander Clarence Hill. Many Legionnaires from local posts joined the rehabilitation effort that turned a two-story building into a meeting place where veterans can gather together in comfort.

Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit group that led the Dryhootch effort, partnered with The American Legion and Sears to help make the veterans center a reality. Featuring a coffee house on the first floor, the building also has several rooms upstairs where various support groups can meet.

"This is the very first event of our partnership with Rebuilding Together," Hill said. "The American Legion helped to renovate this facility - a gathering place for veterans to just sit back and chill. They've done a super job."

Pointing to a volunteer handing out t-shirts at the ceremony, Hill said, "I like what they say: ‘Helping veterans and their families who survived the war survive the peace.' That's what it's all about. It's not just up to the VA to take care of our veterans. It's up to the rest of us to kick in whatever we can do."

The city has been "kicking in" since last April, when renovation work first began. "It's been months of work that have finally come together in this great collaboration," said Lynnea Katz-Petted, executive director of Rebuilding Together in greater Milwaukee. "It's a great way to give back to the veterans for our freedom.

"People come back (from the war) and they get forgotten, and that's simply wrong. So it's an honor to give them a home where they can come and get some peace of mind. That, to me, is the joy of all this."

Veterans attending the opening ceremony agreed that Dryhootch will make a meaningful addition to community support for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Joseph Mitchell served in both countries with the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division. He thinks the new facility "is a great place for veterans. It will give them a new mission and a new outlook."

Mitchell said it was "pretty difficult" when he came home from the war. He had problems connecting with other people, and it was hard for civilians to understand his own situation and what he had been through overseas.

But the young veteran felt buoyant about Dryhootch's opening. "It's a good day, today. It's been a long road for a lot of people. They've been waiting a long time for this moment," Mitchell said.

As volunteers put together coffee tables in the front yard of Dryhootch, other veterans expressed similar sentiments about the value of a veterans center at 1030 E. Brady St.

Mark Flower, who served in the U.S. Army and the Individual Ready Reserve in Wisconsin, said "Even though they try, our government could do a better job with the reintegration of veterans into our communities. They train us to go to war, (but) they don't really train us how to be civilians again - especially with National Guard and reserves becoming such a big part of our active forces. Our hope is that we can help in that transition."

Flower, program director for Dryhootch, stressed the critical importance of support from The American Legion, Rebuilding Together, Sears and local Plumbers Union 75. "Without them, we wouldn't have been able to get it done.

Larry Burt, who served in Vietnam and is a member of American Legion Post 5 in Ironwood, Mich., said he felt good about volunteering for the project, "because I'm helping another vet, and that's important to me. It gives the younger veterans a chance to reconnect.

"When they go into the service, they train you to do a specific job. But when they get out of the service, they don't teach you how to reconnect with civilian life."

Bob Curry, president of Dryhootch and a Vietnam War veteran who flew recon missions over Laos and North Vietnam, said, "It's all about healing. To the veterans, this is our way of dealing with a lot of our demons. This is one way to do it. When you help another veteran, you also help yourself.

"For the younger veterans, they can talk to an older (brother or sister-in-arms) about things that they can't talk about with their families - things that are haunting them. And they can ask, ‘How did you handle it?' in a non-threatening environment."

When Curry returned home from Vietnam in 1971, anti-war protests were at a fever pitch across America. He stepped off a plane in Seattle, where he was pelted by protesters with eggs and "chicken guts." Curry went into a bathroom, changed into civilian clothes and stuffed his uniform in a trash can.

"I was shocked. All I wanted to do was go home and I was being attacked," he said. "And I said, ‘This never happened. This war is done.' So that was it. I didn't talk about it. I didn't do anything."

That was the extent of Curry's "transition" to military life, which is why he is so committed to helping today's veterans get back into the groove of civilian life. He has noticed a key change that makes that transition much easier than it was in the Vietnam era.

"I went to the airport and saw people clapping when the troops were returning. And I was shocked - in a good way. I wasn't really looking for applause when I came back. I just didn't want them throwing eggs at me," Curry said.

While coffee is a key ingredient for socializing at the center, it offers much more than a cup of "joe" when it comes to helping veterans. Allison Kitzerow, development director for Dryhootch, explained that various support services are being offered, including a peer mentoring program supervised by retired VA psychologist and Vietnam veteran Murray Bernstein.

"He trains our peer mentors, and he'll also oversee a weekly support group that starts in September," Kitzerow said. "We have 21 trained peer mentors who are all volunteers, and some of them are veterans."

Kitzerow, an Iraq veteran who still serves in the U.S. Army Reserve, said that Dryhootch will be hosting a variety of support-group meetings on its second floor, addressing such issues as post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma, alcohol/drug and other addictions, and family support.

According to Flower, the workscape at Dryhootch was heavily populated by Legionnaires from several Wisconsin posts. "Whenever we asked them to help us with something, they always came out and helped," he said.

Dryhootch is currently open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and hopes to be operating 24/7 in the near future.