Bartenders can be combat veterans' first line of defense

July 14, 2011 

The minute one of her regulars comes through the canteen door at VFW Post 1503 in Dale City, Va., Dori Keys starts to pour. Captain Morgan and Diet Coke for Rich. Old Crow on the rocks for Sam. Bruce likes Miller Lite.

The men she serves have one thing in common: They are American combat veterans. After seven years of listening from behind the bar, she knows a lot more about some of them than what they drink.

Men like Bruce Yeager, 62, who came in one day complaining about a sore on his foot that wouldn't heal. A former Army medic in Vietnam, he knew what was wrong. But it took Keys to persuade him to see a doctor. She even drove him. When they amputated his gangrenous leg a few weeks later -- the result of diabetes linked to his exposure to Agent Orange -- he couldn't very well stay alone in his own home, so she brought him to hers.

"I listened to Dori because she is a real good person," Yeager says, nursing the beer she just poured him. That's about all he can put into words before his eyes mist up.

When it comes to dispensing health care, war veterans are a hard group to reach. They came up in a military system that rewards toughness and discourages complaints, particularly concerning psychological problems. Combat veterans are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression; the suicide rate among them runs higher than in the civilian world.

Great advances in treatment have been made since the troops came home from Vietnam. Then, PTSD wasn't even a formal diagnosis. Finding the ones who need help is the hard part.

That's where women like Keys come in: a 53-year-old mother of three who rides a Harley, likes to sit and embroider on her days off, and spends more time with the men who fought in places like Berlin and Baghdad than even some of their families do. Those who still have families anyway.

"In social work, you try to meet the client where they are. If that happens to be a bar, then that's where the first line of help needs to be," says Keith Anderson, an assistant professor of social work at Ohio State University.

Anderson is the lead author of "The Healing Tonic," a pilot study that explored the family-like relationships between bartenders and veterans at VFW canteens across the state.

The study's results suggest that with some simple training, the women behind the bar -- and most of them happen to be women -- could be an untapped resource in identifying veterans in crisis and steering them toward professional help.

At lunchtime on a recent warm day, the parking lot of Post 1503 is full of pickup trucks. The air inside is cool and smoky, four flat screens flicker in the dark and the special is spaghetti with meat sauce. Keys is tending bar and every stool is taken up by creatures of habits so set, she can recite with eyes closed who is there and the order in which they are seated. ("Bob, Sam, Donnie, Mac, Benny, Dave, Jerry, Jim ... ")

This flag-studded brick building in the northern Virginia suburbs is tucked between the Army's Fort Belvoir and the Marine Corps base at Quantico. It looks more like a post office than what it is: the biggest VFW post in the country and a study in the damage of war over time. The requirement for membership is simple but steep: honorable service in a combat zone. "Not sitting in Beaufort, South Carolina," barks bar manager John Meehan, who was in Korea with the Army.

They talk; she listens -- sister, confessor, wisecracker, friend, stationed behind the long, varnished bar sometimes 13 hours at a time, with the bad knees to prove it. She was busing tables at 15 and pouring drinks at 22. But no civilian saloon was ever like this. The men who come here aren't looking to get drunk, or see who they can take home. They come for the fellowship of service, where they can talk or not talk, and no war story is too stale or horrific to tell.

Still, it is by no means a glum place. The conversation is lively. If someone gets out of line, one "Watch it," from Keys generally suffices. When it doesn't, as in the case of the guy who threatened her with a .357 magnum, she has him kicked out.

Veterans with high levels of combat exposure tend to have more parenting problems, higher divorce rates, lower levels of happiness and poorer health -- the stories Keys hears all the time. She is what social workers call a gatekeeper, ideally positioned to watch out for those in the community considered at risk.

Anderson, the Ohio study's author, has approached the VFW and the VA about preparing a brief online training video for bartenders at 3,500 canteens across the country. If they reach even a fraction of the group's 1.5 million members -- 130,000 of whom served in the current wars -- he figures it's worth the effort.

"We're not suggesting bartenders become professional counselors or psychologists," Anderson says. "We're just hoping that with a little additional training in how to recognize more common problems, they can help link up veterans with services."

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