In his more than 25 years behind the bar at the Chicago Bridgeport Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5079 on the South Side, Michael Pryor has heard and seen plenty, including from vets unburdening their troubles.
"We're like a family here," Pryor said. "I don't like to put any pressure on them (to talk). I just listen to what they're telling me."
And he considers the conversations to be confidential.
"It's like a doctor-patient kind of relationship," Pryor said.
That aspect of bartending has been captured in movies and television shows over the years. It also is what prompted researchers from Ohio State University to zero in on VFW bartenders in a recent six-month study. Their findings, published in the Journal of Military Veterans Health, suggested that bartenders could play a role in helping to identify veterans who exhibit signs of mental distress.
The idea of formalizing what has been a casual relationship sits well with some Chicagoland VFW barkeeps but is rejected by others as too intrusive.
Ohio State assistant professor Keith Anderson, one of the lead authors of the study, said the research was part of an ongoing look at the potential role that "community gatekeepers" — postal workers, librarians and hairdressers — might play as possible "liaisons" to health care systems.
"In a previous study I looked at hairdressers and their ability to help their older clients," Anderson said. "We then immediately thought of bartenders — they're ... de facto counselors in a lot of ways, and then we kind of immediately thought of veterans at VFWs in particular because it serves a special clientele."
Anderson said the study is not suggesting that bartenders be trained as social workers or counselors, but rather that they be taught to identify basic symptoms of mental health problems like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that are common among veterans.
Once those signs appear, the bartender could refer the patron to a mental health program and offer information on resources offered by the local VA health facility, he said.
The study was based on surveys of more than 70 bartenders at VFW posts in Ohio. About 80 percent said they would refer veterans to services if needed. Fewer — about 60 percent — were willing to undergo training to identify mental health problems.
Pryor liked the idea of training bartenders and said he wouldn't have a problem suggesting that patrons seek professional help.
Marcel Lirot, a bartender at the VFW Overseas Post 1197 in Batavia for six months, sees it differently.
"I think if people knew that we had undergone that type of training that they would think we were trying to watch them for some kind of weird behavior. They don't want to feel like they're being surveilled," he said.
Matthew Zeleny, a bartender at St. Charles Memorial VFW Post 5036 for the last year, said the majority of his clientele — mostly from the Vietnam War and older — prefer to keep to themselves. He tries to respect that.
"I would leave that to the people who are trained for it," Zeleny said. "If it does help that's nice, but I wouldn't feel comfortable sitting there talking because I've never been through that."
Other bartenders, mostly those who have worked at posts for a number of years, felt more comfortable suggesting that a regular patron seek help.
"If somebody's going in depression, you need to try to help them as much as possible," said Betty Darrow, who has worked at the VFW Addison Post 7446 for 15 years. "With a lot of the VFWs, they are like family, and I'm going to help them in any way that I can because they helped me stay safe."
Critics have questioned whether bartenders should be encouraged to take on such a role, since serving alcohol to someone suspected of having depression can only make the problem worse.
Anderson said getting help to veterans is the primary concern.
"We need to help the veterans regardless of where they are at that point in time," he said. "If they just so happen to be at the bar, that's where the first line of help needs to be."
Anderson said he plans to continue his examination of the role community gatekeepers might play in identifying those at risk for mental health problems. His current focus is the relationship between librarians and the homeless.
"The idea is to try and look at these people as community resources," Anderson said.