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Bartenders can be combat veterans’ first line of defense

The minute one of her regulars comes through the canteen door at VFW Post 1503, 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.

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When it comes to dispensing healthcare, 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 well-established 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.

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At lunchtime on a recent warm day, the parking lot of Post 1503 is full of pickups. 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 Ft. 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 Buford, South Carolina,” barks bar manager John Meehan, who was in Korea with the Army.

Veterans of every major battle since World War II are members here, separated by decades and bound by war. They lost 85-year-old Vinnie Salzillo last month; he was at Iwo Jima. About two dozen of the younger ones aren’t old enough to buy a beer, but they have two tours each in Afghanistan and Iraq behind them.

Some guys like Rich Silva, 47, here this afternoon in his battle fatigues, are still on active duty. He fought in Panama, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Bosnia, and twice each in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few weeks ago, a thunderstorm sent him diving under his bed for cover. Later at the bar, he told Keys.

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“When my wife divorced me, I had nobody to go to. Dori spent 10 or 12 hours talking to me. She was working a double shift that day,” he says over a Captain Morgan as Keys, at the well and out of earshot, wipes down the copper railings. “Then she made sure I got a ride home.”

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.

“This place has made me tough and it’s made me a better person. I have more patience with everything now, I realize what life is,” she says, managing to carry on a conversation with one eye on her patrons, an occupational talent.

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Most of 1503’s members are men who served in Vietnam. They’re in their 60s and 70s now, a generation of warriors who came home to a country that was more angry than grateful. A lot of them turned to one another, and still do.

The door opens and in walks former Marine Sam Pitts, 75, right on schedule. Keys pours an Old Crow on the rocks. He went to Vietnam twice. He works 4 a.m. to noon as the post’s maintenance man and likes to stick around after. Here, if he feels like it, he can bring up “the details” of war only his comrades understand. The stuff civilians didn’t care to hear about back then any more than they do now. The stuff he still won’t tell Lula, his wife of half a century who helped him through five years of nightmares and all the rest.

“Few people really want to say ‘I killed so many and so many,’ but out of necessity, that’s what war brings on. There was one occasion, well,” he stops to consider his civilian audience. “We ain’t gonna talk about that.”

Service members returning from the battlefield today are routinely assessed for PTSD. But some older veterans still struggle with what they did or saw; in fact, not long before he died, Vinnie Salzillo told Rich Silva that some things still haunted him 70 years later.

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Nearly a third of Vietnam veterans came home with PTSD, according to Dr. Sonja Batten, who works on national mental health policy for the Veterans Administration. A study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and others showed that more than three decades after the war ended, about 12% of Vietnam veterans still had the disorder.

Modern treatment can be effective no matter how long ago the war, Batten said, noting that more than half of the veterans currently in VA care for PTSD fought in Vietnam.

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.

If one of the regulars doesn’t show up for a couple of days, she calls and checks. Sometimes she can tell what’s wrong just from the looks on their faces. When a vet named Phil (she won’t give last names unless they do) came in a few months back looking so sad, she knew right off it was the first anniversary of his wife’s death.

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“I don’t have a line for everybody, stuff just comes to me,” she says, a Salem Light going in an ashtray. “I try to console them and say, maybe you need to talk to somebody and get some help. If they talk about their wartime, I pretty much just listen.”

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.”

It took decades for the effects of war to catch up with John-David Allen, down at one end of the bar this afternoon, relaxed and chatting. If anyone appeared to have come through three tours in Vietnam and one in the Persian Gulf unscathed, it was him: He retired as an Army colonel in 1995 with the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars and four Purple Hearts. Five years after he left, he started having flashbacks.

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“I was drinking too much. I was diagnosed with clinical depression,” says Allen, 66. His wife and fellow officers urged him to get treatment.

For some veterans, that sort of support is more likely to be found at bars like this. Allen thinks training bartenders is a good idea. As long as they are bartenders like Keys, who can tell when a guy is, as they say around here, “wrapped a little tight.”

“Another set of eyes is a good thing,” Allen says, better for the treatment he never thought he would need. “Because it never goes away. And anyone who tells you it does has never been in combat.”

faye.fiore@latimes.com


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