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Veterans find camaraderie in coffee club

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By Reece Murphy

After months of covering a remote Afghan outpost, journalist Sebastian Junger said the only thing that makes battle psychologically tolerable for soldiers is their brotherhood.
To a group of veterans in Indian Land, that camaraderie plays just as important a role here at home.
For the members of Tuesday Heroes, it all begins with “coffee and bull” at the CrossRidge Café in Indian Land.
“Nobody wants to hear our stories unless they’ve been there,” Air Force veteran Don Brazzel said. “Some of these guys have some really good stories, and you’re not going to hear them anywhere else.”
“Some of them are complete B.S., but they’re fun to listen to,” veteran  Army doctor Clem Markarian said, evoking a round of knowing laughter from the guys nearby.
The group, which most prefer to call simply the “veterans’ coffee club,” has been meeting at CrossRidge Café for about a year and a half. It’s the brainchild of Marine veteran Ray Dunsmore.
Dunsmore said he was struck after moving to Indian Land a little over two years ago by the fact that there were no informal veterans groups for socializing. So he put a notice in Carolina Gateway asking interested veterans to join him at McDonald’s, and before long three others joined him.
The group moved to CrossRidge Café about six months later at the invitation of cafe supervisor Hillary Collins, an Army veteran herself.
The group now has 67 members, and about half attend on any given Tuesday.
Dunsmore said part of the appeal is that unlike other veterans’ organizations such as the American Legion or VFW, there are no formalities, no requirements, no agendas and no dues.
He said the coffee club is just an informal get-together of veterans for coffee, but for many who come, it has become much more.
“We’ve helped each other immensely,” Dunsmore said. “From issues with the VA to social issues, somebody’s been through it.
“My wife’s been ill … but I had to come here today,” he said. “These guys are my source of strength. That’s why I’m here instead of sitting at home being miserable.”
Among the newest members is Army veteran Justin Madore, who attended the Nov. 1 get-together for the first time with his uncle James Jones, a former Marine.
A veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Madore represents a rare group at Tuesday Heroes: younger veterans. Like many of the other coffee club vets, Madore said he enjoyed the fact that he could talk about what was on his mind without having to explain himself.
He said many of his fellow young veterans are still withdrawn from their experiences, so it’s hard for them to find groups such as this that they can trust. He said he admired the fact that some of the guys in the group had been dealing with the issues his generation of soldiers is experiencing now for decades.
“It’s great to just relax,” Madore said. “They understand where you’re coming from, and you can let down your guard.  They let you laugh, and they’re not asking a lot of questions.
“I put a call out to all Afghanistan and Iraq veterans to come,” he said. “They’re your brothers. Just like out there, they’ve got your backs back home.”

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No one judges
Air Force veteran Bill Betit said he believes issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affect nearly half of soldiers who come back from war. Many suffer from martial issues, drug and alcohol problems, and thoughts of suicide.
And if there’s one thing that approaches an agenda with the guys of Tuesday Heroes, it is helping their brother and sister veterans cope with all those issues, especially the younger ones.
“We send these young guys off to war at 18 to 20 years old, and they lose some of their best friends,” Betit said. “They get back to society and they don’t fit. They don’t know where to go. So that is why this is so important.
“So we’re trying to get the word out to these guys that we can help you,” he said. “We’ll just sit down and talk. We won’t judge you, and they can talk to anyone when they’re ready.”
Collins jokingly admits that she invited the group to CrossRidge Café because she wanted to participate herself, but had to work. A younger veteran herself, Collins said it has been a pleasure getting to know her fellow veterans and said the bond they share transcends eras.
She said the group offers a “safe” place for veterans, a feeling she said is hard to explain to those who never served in the military, but is almost instinctive for those who have.
“When I first got out of the Army, it was like, ‘I’m free! I can do what I want’ … but after a while I began to miss my people,” Collins said. “When you find them, I don’t know, it’s an unexplainable connection, kind of like, all I need to know is that you served, and you’re my brother and sister.
“Some people don’t want to be part of an organization. This is different,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, your rank, your branch, what you did, where you served. You just come and enjoy a cup of coffee.”

Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151 or follow on Twitter @ReeceTLN