A place for soldiers to talk

December 9, 2008

IRAQ VETERANS Against the War (IVAW), GI Voice and Haymarket Books hosted a grand opening fundraiser for Coffee Strong, the GI coffeehouse outside the gates of Fort Lewis in Washington state, on November 15.

Coffee Strong, a spoof on the "Army Strong" advertising campaign, is the second GI coffeehouse to open in the U.S. since the war in Vietnam. The first, Different Drummer Café, opened in Watertown, N.Y., outside Fort Drum two years ago, and another, Under the Hood, is scheduled to open soon in Killeen, Texas, outside Fort Hood.

During the war in Vietnam, GI coffeehouses provided a space for veterans and active-duty soldiers to talk openly about the war, the antiwar movement, and GI rights and resistance inside the military, as well as music, art and politics. These coffeehouses played an integral role in the massive antiwar movement and GI rebellion that finally forced the U.S. military to withdraw from Vietnam.

IVAW members Seth Manzel and Michael William spoke to Kate Johnson about the opening of Coffee Strong and the movement behind it.

FIRST OFF, congratulations on this historic moment in the antiwar movement! How did Coffee Strong come together, and who were the driving forces behind it?

Seth: Thank you. Two years ago, we started to do a feasibility study on how much it would cost to set this thing up, and it ended up being a fair amount more than we thought it would be. Alex Bacon started working on it early on, and then I got involved with IVAW and started fundraising for it pretty aggressively, using Haymarket Books authors. That was basically how we came up with the money to do it.

Then we actually formed the GI Voice Project corporation, which is a nonprofit corporation, and we got a lot of support from the community that helped up put it all together.

Michael: Seth Manzel and Alex Bacon of IVAW have done the majority of the legwork leading up to the acquisition of the property, and I basically committed myself to work as the barista. So I didn't have as much to do with the starting of the business, but I've put in my time to work here. I also did a training in GI rights counseling so that I can be a greater asset behind the counter, so that when troops are coming in, I'll be able to assist them and lead them to further help if that's what they need.

IVAW members from around the Northwest at the GI coffeehouse Coffee Strong
IVAW members from around the Northwest at the GI coffeehouse Coffee Strong (Kate Johnson | SW)

CAN YOU talk more about GI Voice?

Seth: We founded GI Voice around the same time that I joined IVAW. We have a Web site, www.givoice.com, and we've got a radio station, which is not working at the moment, and then the coffee shop. All three projects are intended to inform soldiers and to promote GI rights and GI resistance.

HOW DO GI Voice and IVAW work together?

Seth: They're mutually supportive. IVAW has helped to fundraise and build the movement behind GI Voice, and now GI Voice is providing a space for IVAW to work right outside the base here. Coffee Strong is literally steps away from the gates of Fort Lewis.

HOW HAS the military community responded to the coffeehouse thus far?

Michael: Even though we've only been open a week and a half, I started a discussion with someone who was considering joining the National Guard, and I planted a pretty good seed in his mind, so he's at least reconsidering his decision to go through with it. I don't know if I totally dissuaded him, but since my experience with the National Guard was very applicable, I was able to explain to him what you can expect, and that in itself was a success.

What you can do

Donate to Coffee Strong today by visiting the GI Voice Web site. Or send checks to GI Voice, P.O. Box 99404, Lakewood, WA 98496.

But we've also had a number of lower enlisted active-duty members come in, and they seem to be hearing through the grapevine what we're about, and they seem to be very happy about this project. And as we start putting on more programs, we're going to be drawing in a lot more soldiers, and that is the community involvement that matters the most.

WHAT ROLE do you see Coffee Strong playing in the immediate and long-term future of rebuilding an antiwar movement and ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Michael: This is going to be a major center of operations for recruiting active-duty members. And that's going to alter the mindset within the military, once you have a growing IVAW membership inside the military. People are going to start thinking differently and standing up for their rights, because people in the military are used to believing that they have no rights.

So in the larger scheme of things, we're going to have a huge impact on ending the war within the ranks. People aren't going to be willing to make the sacrifices asked of them when they're being misused and abused by the military.

But we also we want this to be such a success that it will create incentive for other bases to open up their own GI coffeehouses. We want to have a lot of fun out here, so it can be a good inspiration, and make it something that's inviting to active-duty people and also the antiwar community, so that we're not just helping with their immediate problems if someone is trying to get out of the military.

We can help them with those kinds of problems through GI counseling, but also we can give them a new outlook on life--and the will to regain their rights, which they've been told they don't have.

Seth: Immediately, it's going to introduce a lot of soldiers, who might otherwise never see any part of the antiwar movement, to the support for them in the antiwar movement. 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.

Through 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.

HOW ARE you keeping Coffee Strong running--as far as donations, staffing and community support? What can supporters do to help?

Michael: We've received a great amount of financial support just from the antiwar community. We have volunteers that are interested in helping with everything from GI rights counseling to actually getting behind the bar and making coffee.

And just to be clear, 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.

Seth: 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, and any little bit that anyone can help us out with will help keep this project funded. Also, we need volunteers and support as far as telling people about what we're doing.

We need volunteers to come in and work the coffeehouse, we need volunteers to help us design things, we need volunteers to help us reach out to other groups and reach out to soldiers.

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