Iraq vet’s touch turns Durham cafe into place to drink, chat ... and do pull-ups

CorrespondentMay 10, 2014 

— It’s not a VFW Hall. There are no pull tabs, no men in stiff brimmed baseball caps and nary a neon beer sign in the joint. But Intrepid Life Cafe and Spirits in downtown Durham is becoming a meeting place for a new generation of veterans.

“We use Facebook, we still drink beer, but we’re not angry,” said Matt Victoriano, 34, the cafe’s owner.

When Victoriano opened Intrepid in late January, he didn’t have an ideal customer in mind, but he did know he wanted to create a space for people to drink, talk and be able to take a break from their day-to-day lives by banging out a set of pull-ups from a bar that hangs near the door.

The former Marine scout sniper, who served two tours in Iraq, said the cafe was also a chance for him to fully immerse himself in civilian life – a life that meant dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and a tough economy for returning vets – in a healthy, and ultimately healing way.

“ ‘Improve, adapt, overcome,’ is what we say in the Marines,” said Victoriano. “But I applied it to health department visits.”

On a recent Thursday afternoon, the lines between civilian and military were blurred at the cafe. Employees from Duke University drank lattes and conducted work meetings in one corner while law students studied for finals in another. Former vets talked about their service, while some patrons popped in to see how many pull-ups they could do that week.

The bar is decorated with pictures of Victoriano’s time in Iraq, Iraqi money and dog tags.

“The (feeling) of the cafe is seen with the flag,” said Victoriano.

Over the bar hangs a flag that used to fly over the U.S. Capitol. U.S. Rep. David Price had the flag dedicated to the shop, and directly across from Old Glory is a picture by French photographer Jean-Christian Rostagni that shows anti-war protesters in Fayetteville, one of whom is holding a sign that says, “I think Bush is a terrorist.”

Victoriano said the placement isn’t supposed to be confrontational but rather conversational.

“People with different opinions are often nicer than people who share your opinions,” he said.

For the modern veteran, life can be more unforgiving in the civilian realm than in the war zone. Victoriano said opening a business has taught him how “normal” life challenges can bring up old feelings from combat. He said an unanswered text used to set off his PTSD, because unanswered communication among snipers was critical for understanding a plan of action.

“There’s a depth to PTSD that’s more than anger issues, drinking and flashbacks,” Victoriano said. “Shame and guilt play a role.”

But some habits learned in war can make for helpful attributes in entrepreneurship.

“A business plan is the same thing as a sniper’s report,” said Victoriano. “As a sniper, you write a 77-page handwritten patrol orders report detailing everything. I wrote a 25-page business plan.”

Victoriano is a small, intense man. He runs nearly every day and is starting a fitness program at the cafe. (The cafe currently hosts yoga nights on Mondays.)

He said the name Intrepid came from what he learned in the Marines; to be intrepid means being fearless and exhibiting fortitude and endurance. It’s that ethos that attracted the Alabama native to the military. He studied classical guitar at college for two years before the idea of traveling to exotic places pulled him to service. He was a good sniper, attending a school for SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape – and leaving as a sergeant, but he said the military did little to help him prepare for life after service.

“Most combat vets like to work on their own, or in physical jobs,” said Victoriano. Delivering pizzas and driving buses didn’t agree with Victoriano, and he said that while the VA does have some job programs geared toward small businesses, such as the Patriot Express Loan, soldiers have to be be prequalified for banks to make them work.

Working together

To fund Intrepid, Victoriano won a federal grant awarded to local businesses revitalizing downtown Durham, and he put the rest of the expenses on his credit card. Much of the plumbing, electricity and construction work was done by Victoriano, who often stayed up until 5 a.m. working on the space.

“This is a really good community,” Victoriano said. He said the owners of Joe Can Gogh (whose coffee the cafe serves) were very helpful in starting the business, and local bakeries Scratch and Loaf help Victoriano if he needs it.

Three of Intrepid’s four employees are also vets, and Victoriano said he sees veterans treating the bar as a meeting place, a place to get support. For Victoriano, that camaraderie is something that’s needed for those who return home.

“Most of my (former) platoon has PTSD issues,” said Victoriano, who said he keeps up with military friends through Facebook. “We didn’t admit it to ourselves at first.”

Ryan Wetter, 25, is Intrepid’s general manager. He’s also a former Marine (the 19th in his family). But after two tours of reconnaissance in Afghanistan, he had little help from the military.

“Forty-five days after I got back from Afghanistan, I was out of the military,” Wetter said. He saw a Facebook advertisement about a new bar in Durham run by veterans, and he emailed Victoriano.

“It’s good working for a Marine because we understand each other,” said Wetter. “He expects me to offer solutions and make suggestions.”

Eric Elbogen studies PTSD in veterans at UNC-Chapel Hill and at the VA hospital in Durham. He said gainful employment is one of the most protective things for vets who may be at increased risk for homelessness, suicide and violence.

“If you think about (military service members), they leave the service and they’re in their 30s the first time they have to pay rent, or find friends,” Elbogen said. “In the military, they had a social network and steady employment, and that’s removed when they leave.”

VA prepares for wave

Victoriano said he didn’t find great post-service career support in the military, and he called the exit process “inadequate” for new vets. Ilario Pantano, the director of Veteran Affairs in North Carolina, agrees.

“The Marine Corps’ mission is to fight and win wars, not focus on padding the exit ramp for servicemen and women,” said Pantano, who served in the same unit as Victoriano in 2004 in Iraq. But Pantano, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010 and 2012, said that doesn’t mean the VA or the Department of Defense is ignoring the fact that more and more vets are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan to a poor economy and are expected to join a workforce that doesn’t understand their skills.

“It’s crucial for future generations of soldiers to see departing veterans as successful,” Pantano said. North Carolina has the third largest active military presence in the U.S., and according to a recent North Carolina Department of Commerce report, there have been, on average, 7,000 to 8,000 servicemen and women leaving the military and re-entering the workforce in North Carolina each year since 2001. That number, Pantano said, is expected to jump to 20,000 in the next year because of sequestration.

“We’re preparing our agency for this wave,” said Pantano. “The cuts disproportionately focus on North Carolina because we have more ground combat (troops) than other states. There’s a real urgency to reform how we take care of veterans.”

The Department of Commerce report states that there are currently 145,864 veterans in the Triangle, but many are over 65. Pantano said with sequestration and troop withdrawals, there’s going to be less media coverage and general awareness of the needs of returning vets.

“There’s fewer of us out there,” Pantano said. “But we’re trying to make this transition (from military to civilian life) better and more effective.”

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