Robert Curry is a Vietnam War veteran and the founder of Dryhootch, a nonprofit based in Milwaukee, WI. I called him to have a conversation about all things Dryhootch.
Madison: Let’s get right into it, what was life like growing up for you?
Robert Curry: I grew up in Milwaukee, I was adopted and my adopted father died when I was in eighth grade. So I grew up very poor in a poor neighborhood.
M: I’m so sorry about your adopted father, that must have impacted you immensely, especially being so young.
RC: It was a struggle but you deal with adversity, struggles can teach you things. I grew up in a neighborhood, this was during Vietnam, when there were a lot of protests. They were usually on college campuses or in wealthier neighborhoods. People who were respected were older kids who after high school went into the service.
M: Who were some people who inspired you growing up?
RC: One of my inspirations were the great speeches of President Kennedy. He said you had to do things for your country and I bought into that. As soon as I was seventeen I enlisted in the service.
M: Can you let those of us who haven’t served in on what your experience was like in Vietnam?
RC: I went over to Vietnam when I was eighteen. It’s just like young people going into the service now. You’re used to how we do everything in the United States and then one day you walk off a plane then you're in a foreign country and you’re in shock, on every level. In my day I got off and it was hot and the smell of the jungle and people walking around who maybe you saw in pictures in a history book. It’s overwhelming and you can’t just go back home. As friend of mine put it, the first thirty days you’re scared sh*tless because everything is new. I’ll give you an example. I got on a school bus at the airport there and we were going to the first base and when I’m getting on it I noticed the cyclone fencing, they had it wrapped all around the windows so I asked what it was for and it was so explosives can’t get through the windows. So right away you’re hit with- this is real. Then you’re driving through the countryside seeing people living a totally different life. One thing I still remember to this day is seeing people living in those huge boxes refrigerators come in. And then the last thirty days you're scared sh*tless because you’re close to coming home. You are thinking - Oh my god I’m going to get killed two weeks before I get to go home. During everything else in between your mind gets in this state where you say to yourself- I’m here, I can’t do anything about it, I just gotta get through today and your mind goes into a different place where you just deal with everything on a daily basis.
M: Wow, that is a LOT to deal with, I’m even in shock and I’m just listening to you talk about it. Going into a war zone and coming back home are some drastic changes to deal with, how was the transition back into civilian life for you?
RC: Well during the Vietnam war everyone hated you, I came back through a base in Seattle Washington, you took off your old clothes so they could burn them, and you took your showers and you filled out 300 forms and then they gave you a new uniform. That evening we got on a school bus to go to the airport in Seattle so we could fly home and when I got off the school bus, there were maybe thirty of us, we are walking in a straight line towards the airport and there were a whole bunch of protesters on a hill by the airport and they were yelling all sorts of things. People in front of me were getting hit with bloody chicken guts and eggs, that shock was as much to me as some of the things that happened to me in Vietnam. I ran into the airport and I was so shocked. Then I took off my uniform and stuffed it in a garbage can, put on my civilian clothes and said this never happened. I learned to just block it out for awhile and then that fell apart. I went to college and I went to work for IBM and At&T, got married and had two wonderful daughters. Every once and awhile I would have something, what I call trigger me, one time I was walking in the backyard with my little daughters and all of a sudden I was back in Vietnam, and then all of sudden I was back in the backyard.
M: That’s a really shocking return to civilian life. I’m no doctor, but it seems like you dealt with some PTSD. Was there anywhere you could go for help or anywhere you felt comfortable going for help?
RC: I had some friends who came back to the VA after Vietnam, the VA was a dirty disgusting place. I have some friends who came back immediately after the war and they swore to God they would never go back, they would die before they went to the VA. That’s how bad the VA was back then. The doctors in the VA were those that were kicked out of the military and the VA today is very different. In Milwaukee today a lot of the doctors are provided by the Medical College of Wisconsin. It’s a whole different situation today and it’s probably been that way for 10 or 15 years.
M: So the VA at that time, wasn’t really an option for you was it?
(The VA is the U.S. Department for Veteran Affairs, they have medical centers across the country.)
RC: In my mind I believed that unless some physical injury happened to me the VA wasn’t going to help me. I had heard the term PTSD but I didn’t know what it was and the other thing was that my war was so long ago I figured that wouldn’t be material now so they aren’t going to help me. 58,000 people had died in Vietnam and in ten years 4 times that number had committed suicide, everybody was pretty much on their own. In fact PTSD wasn’t even in the medical books it was taken out during the Vietnam War. It was there before but it was called shell shock back in World War l so it’s been with us since the beginning of time but somehow during that period it got lost.
M: Earlier you mentioned that blocking out your memories fell apart, what did you mean by that?
RC: There was a point were I totally fell apart and I had some friends take me to the VA. I was in treatment for 3 or 4 years. I learned a lot and I got healthy. I got myself back. I knew what to do when there were triggers. You never really get rid of it but you learn how to deal with it. I couldn’t go back to business like I had done before, that just didn’t make sense. The only way I was going to live with myself was going to help other veterans.
M: Your experience was obviously challenging, but it seems to have been the driving force behind the creation of Dryhootch. Let’s get in to that, What does dryhootch mean?
RC: Hootch means, in military jargon, a place you live. When I was in Vietnam I lived in a hootch and a hootch can be anything. It means home, in a war zone. I think it started in World War ll but even people that go over to Iraq and Afghanistan today use and understand the hootch name. Dry means no alcohol or no drugs.
M: How neat! What is Dryhootch, in the physical sense?
RC: The idea was to set up a community center run by other veterans so it’s a safe place and we built it around a coffee shop. We said let’s make a coffee shop where veterans can have a cup of coffee, sit down if they want to and as they become comfortable they can reach out for help. We have music on the weekends. It’s a more gentle approach to mental health. When someone who struggles with mental health goes back to the doctor it’s a pretty rude and uninviting environment. You’re in the waiting room staring at the ceiling and then you see a doctor and some of them aren’t the most personable people in the world. It’s a veteran helping a veteran. It’s that peer relationship. Its I trust you because you’ve been in the same place I’ve been.
M: Do veterans need to struggle with mental health in order to go to Dryhootch?
RC: You don’t have to have a drug or alcohol issue. The whole idea is to implant Dryhootch in people’s minds. They might not need it now. Maybe in twenty years they might need it. Someone in the family might or a buddy they served with might need it. Then they remember Dryhootch, so they have a place they can reach out to.
M: Some nonprofits struggle to keep their heads above water and be as successful as you have. How have you been able to do this? Did you have any previous experience with nonprofits?
RC: None. I was in the business world and I tried starting a few businesses on my own and failed. I learned a lot from failing. But it was something I walked into and I understood that every month you have to have more money then you are spending. I learned a lot from my many mistakes. So it helped, and not that I did everything right but it’s ten years later and we are still here. We don’t get funded by the VA.
M: What can people do if they want to get involved?
RC: To give funding, that’s the truth and the other way is to volunteer. That’s huge.
If you would like to get involved check out: http://www.dryhootch.org/