This Bakery Trains Wounded Veterans in the Art of Pastries and Business

Dog Tag Bakery, a new Georgetown bakery, is home to a work-study program that’s the first of its kind.

Sham Hasan, a former Iraqi interpreter for the U.S. Army and State Department in Iraq, arranges pastries in the Dog Tag Bakery in Georgetown on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. 
National Journal
Dec. 17, 2014, midnight

There’s a new, swanky bakery in Geor­getown that’s serving up premi­um cof­fee, teas, and pastries like a crème car­a­mel rooibos teaclair, mini ba­nana bread loaf, and lem­on fin­an­ci­er, all baked from scratch in an his­tor­ic build­ing on a quiet side street a few blocks from the wa­ter­front. Ex­posed brick and light-stained hard­wood floors com­ple­ment red leath­er seats and blue and white booths with match­ing red pil­lows—ap­pro­pri­ately pat­ri­ot­ic dé­cor for this non­tra­di­tion­al eat­ery.

Dog Tag Bakery, which cel­eb­rated its grand open­ing this month, is not like oth­er baker­ies in the up­scale D.C. neigh­bor­hood. The staff may be just as tal­en­ted and pleas­ant as in oth­er cof­fee houses in area, and the digs just as nice. But for eight people on staff, bak­ing and brew­ing is just one ele­ment of their jobs. Those eight are in­jured vet­er­ans and their spouses, par­ti­cip­at­ing in a work-study pro­gram through Geor­getown Uni­versity.

By day, they help run the bakery—from ringing up cus­tom­ers, to mar­ket­ing, to ac­tu­ally bak­ing the pastries. They learn the ins and outs of run­ning a busi­ness and the art of bak­ing. On the side, they take busi­ness courses on the second floor of the 150-year-old build­ing. Geor­getown pro­fess­ors, through the School of Con­tinu­ing Stud­ies, come in to teach courses on ac­count­ing, busi­ness man­age­ment, fin­ance, and com­mu­nic­a­tions. Rick Curry, a priest and ad­junct Geor­getown pro­fess­or, and Con­nie Mil­stein, a phil­an­throp­ist and en­tre­pren­eur, cofoun­ded the pro­gram. It’s the only busi­ness cer­ti­fic­ate pro­gram of its kind in the coun­try, help­ing trans­ition in­jured vet­er­ans in­to the private sec­tor.

It’s an im­port­ant trans­ition that’s of­ten over­looked. Vet­er­ans, and es­pe­cially wounded vet­er­ans, of­ten have a dif­fi­cult time find­ing jobs after leav­ing the mil­it­ary. In a re­cent sur­vey, the Wounded War­ri­ors Pro­ject found that over 17 per­cent of the pro­gram’s alumni are un­em­ployed—one-third of whom are long-term un­em­ployed. Just 44 per­cent of those sur­veyed work full time. 

One of the roots in this trend has to deal with wounded vet­er­ans lack­ing the ne­ces­sary edu­ca­tion for the private sec­tor. That’s why Justin Ford, the bakery’s gen­er­al man­ager, helps run the pro­gram to wounded vet­er­ans—many of whom have com­bat in­jur­ies or post-trau­mat­ic stress—and to their spouses, who are of­ten care­givers. Par­ti­cipants are paid a $2,200 monthly sti­pend by the pro­gram and the bakery cov­ers their cer­ti­fic­ate costs.

“No mat­ter if you have a phys­ic­al or men­tal wound or dis­ab­il­ity, it’s not go­ing to stop you from grow­ing pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally,” Ford says. “We’ll def­in­itely knock down that wall.”

Ford knows this situ­ation well. He’s a vet­er­an of the Army, serving as a com­bat en­gin­eer for four years, in­clud­ing in Kosovo and Ir­aq. When he left the mil­it­ary in 2004, he as­sumed that since he did well in the mil­it­ary and achieved rank pro­mo­tions at a re­l­at­ively quick pace, it would trans­late over to the ci­vil­ian world. But after he couldn’t se­cure any man­age­ment po­s­i­tions, he found him­self bus­ing tables, work­ing at a gym, and do­ing oth­er odd jobs that didn’t pay the bills for al­most two years un­til he de­cided to go to col­lege. Since then, he’s worked to find jobs for oth­er vet­er­ans after they leave the ser­vice.

“The mil­it­ary spends a great deal of time and money in­aug­ur­at­ing you in­to the mil­it­ary, but only about a week to send you on your way. So, when someone comes out of the mil­it­ary, they don’t have that sup­port net­work,” Ford says. “We’ve got­ten a lot bet­ter as a coun­try and with­in the mil­it­ary trans­ition­ing vet­er­ans. But there’s still a lot of work to do.”

An­oth­er is­sue has to do with the struc­ture of the private sec­tor, says Alex Powers, the dir­ect­or of the War­ri­ors to Work pro­gram at the Wounded War­ri­ors Pro­ject. Be­cause many vet­er­ans entered the mil­it­ary at a very young age, typ­ic­ally right out of high school, they don’t have a vast amount of ex­per­i­ence work­ing in the private sec­tor. His pro­gram provides one-on-one ca­reer coun­sel­ing and coach­ing for part-time or full-time em­ploy­ment. The pro­ject has com­mit­ted to find­ing mean­ing­ful em­ploy­ment for 10,000 vet­er­ans by 2017.

“When they go out to the ci­vil­ian sec­tor, they un­der­stand that they have to be at work at a cer­tain time, but they’re fear­ful of wheth­er or not they’ll be truly ment­ored and coached like they were in the mil­it­ary,” says Powers, who served 10 years in the Army through the mid-1990s. “These are amaz­ing people, just in­cred­ibly cour­ageous in­di­vidu­als. These war­ri­ors want to con­tin­ue to have a mean­ing­ful life. They want to take care of their fam­ily. They want to grow per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally as they deal with their in­jur­ies upon their re­turn from down­range.”

Ford, for his part, has made an ef­fort to hire vet­er­ans bey­ond the pro­gram as per­man­ent staff in the bakery. He also hired Sham Has­an, a former Ir­aqi trans­lat­or for the U.S. Army and State De­part­ment. Has­an worked for the U.S. gov­ern­ment for over three years in Ir­aq and fi­nally moved to Wash­ing­ton two months ago after a long, ar­du­ous green-card pro­cess. But with the new job, and new path in the U.S. he got through his ser­vice, he’s around a couple things he knows well: food and mil­it­ary folks.

“I wake up every morn­ing pumped up and mo­tiv­ated,” says the 28-year-old barista. “I just want to be here and work. I want to be Amer­ic­an. That’s the dream. I al­ways wanted to be Amer­ic­an. I worked so hard and I nailed it.”

Pat­rons of the Geor­getown es­tab­lish­ment share his en­thu­si­asm. “The bread is good,” a new reg­u­lar cus­tom­er yells as he leaves on this winter morn­ing, walk­ing past the chan­delier made of dog tags hov­er­ing over an an­tique dog tag maker. The bakery hadn’t cel­eb­rated its grand open­ing yet when I was there, but the place was packed with cof­fee drink­ers and busi­nesspeople munch­ing on cur­ried chick­en-salad sand­wiches and chocol­ate cof­fee truffles. The space is com­fort­ably airy, de­signed to be es­pe­cially ac­cess­ible for wounded vet­er­ans—there’s an el­ev­at­or for the second floor, there’s more room in the aisles and be­hind the counter to fit a wheel­chair, and the front door is auto­mat­ic.

A new wave of pro­gram par­ti­cipants will come in the new year. But un­til that time, Ford re­minds his cus­tom­ers: “Al­though we are a non­profit, we do of­fer a good product.”

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