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Sarah Roberts - TeamRWB
THIS IS THE SLUG
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Veterans Adding Value


"There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."

                                                          — Nelson Mandela

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Veterans Adding Value


"There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."

                                                          — Nelson Mandela

Lyndsey Anderson

Tillman Scholar. Art Curator. Army Veteran.

Lyndsey uses the lessons she learned as a young woman at war to connect through art and mentorship with civilians both young and old.

Explore how Lyndsey is moving toward success.

 

 

Sarah Roberts

Mother. Community Builder. Army Veteran.

She left the military and corporate rat race behind. But Sarah kept running and is determined to help build up the community around her. 

Explore how Sarah's compassion is strengthening Seattle.

 

 

Rachael Harris

Entrepreneur. Survivor. Navy Veteran.

When she joined the Navy, Rachael brought her grandfather's recipe for sour cream cornbread, but left active duty lost and confused. Rediscovering her love for food helped her find her way home.

Explore how Rachael's grilled cheese biscuits serve up hope. One bite at a time.

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She Found Solace in Art and Artifacts During War, and When She Came Home.


Lyndsey Anderson uses the lessons she learned as a young woman at war to connect through art and mentorship with civilians both young and old.

She Found Solace in Art and Artifacts During War, and When She Came Home.


Lyndsey Anderson uses the lessons she learned as a young woman at war to connect through art and mentorship with civilians both young and old.

By Jack Crosbie

“I see a clown,” the woman in the wheelchair said suddenly, breaking a long silence. In front of her, Lyndsey Anderson smiled, tilting her head slightly to listen. “What about it tells you it’s a clown?” she asked, nodding toward the painting the whole tour group was clustered around. It was a clashing frame of geometric shapes in swirls of red and blue on a square canvas, hinting at familiar shapes. The old woman in the wheelchair replied, pointing out the red circle of a nose and the shape of a jester’s hat. Next to her, the woman’s daughter—a carbon copy of the woman in the chair, their hair the same shade of gray—stood transfixed. “I took my daughter to the circus once,” the old woman told her daughter, not recognizing her.

“I remember that too, Mom,” her daughter replied, face streaming with tears. The woman in the chair didn’t seem to fully understand; she started humming a song, lost in her memory of the circus. Her daughter barely remembered it, she told Lyndsey during the tour. It must have been 60 years ago or more. Her mother’s dementia had obscured that memory, and nearly all others, including her daughter’s face half the time. In a quiet corner of the Rubin Museum of Art, the abstract painting of lions and the ring blew the fog of dementia away just for a moment.

Lyndsey looks at a statue in the Rubin Museum, where she worked managed the accessibility programs for guests with visual, physical, or cognitive impairments. Photo by Jack Crosbie for The War Horse

Lyndsey looks at a statue in the Rubin Museum, where she worked managed the accessibility programs for guests with visual, physical, or cognitive impairments. Photo by Jack Crosbie for The War Horse

Lyndsey loved that nook of the museum. There’s a reason that tour, one of dozens she’s led for people with memory loss, ended up in front of “The Circus.” The sounds of other museum guests floated up through the open spiral staircase, quiet enough not to break the group’s concentration in the secluded southwest corner. Lyndsey’s job as the Rubin’s manager for visitor experience and access programs was to help guests who wouldn’t benefit as much from traditional tours connect with art. To visitors with visual impairments she described the curves and edges of sculptures, suggesting the feelings that they evoked, and she brought tours for people with dementia to see vivid works that might jog memories they had forgotten. Sometimes, like the moment in front of the circus painting, her job was just to stand and listen, hands clasped easily behind her back—a soldier unable to kick the habit of coming to parade rest while standing still.

An abandoned tank near Al Taji, where a creative soldier had sprayed "The Art of War" on the side. Courtesy of Lyndsey Anderson

An abandoned tank near Al Taji, where a creative soldier had sprayed "The Art of War" on the side. Courtesy of Lyndsey Anderson

In Iraq, Lyndsey absorbed art and culture through murals pockmarked with shrapnel scars and tattered portraits discovered in wallets left behind by Iraqis who fled the American bombing campaign and ground invasion. She served at Camp Taji, a support unit base about 17 miles north of Baghdad that maintained a Captured Enemy Materials warehouse between 2003 and 2004, storing weapons, vehicles, statues, and “anything deemed historically relevant.”

She spent the bulk of her 13-month deployment supervising a group of local civilian contractors, working with an interpreter to direct the men—most of whom weren’t much older than she was—in various reconstruction projects around the city. When she arrived, Camp Taji and the surrounding area were a “trove of objects” left behind by Iraqis fleeing the war.

With the contractors, she spent days picking through the rubble, supervising construction projects and immersing herself in the liminal space of a culture oppressed by both war and the regime that preceded it. Portraits of Saddam Hussein were everywhere, and Lyndsey’s unit brought back a six-foot-square image that now hangs in the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum, where she did her first internship after returning home. But Lyndsey was fascinated with the smaller, human details left behind. During her two to three hours of downtime every day she started poking around the base and nearby buildings.

Lyndsey discovered a "beauty in the mundane" among manuscripts, debris, and other things left behind. Courtesy of Lyndsey Anderson

Lyndsey discovered a "beauty in the mundane" among manuscripts, debris, and other things left behind. Courtesy of Lyndsey Anderson

“I felt as if I were a modern-day Indiana Jones,” she said. During a single memorable day, she found an AK-47 bayonet, the giant Saddam portrait, several uniforms, a grenade training aid, and a cache of printed documents with Arabic script penciled into the margins. She was flipping through the documents when a photograph of a young girl fluttered out of the stack. For some reason she kept it, and she started collecting other small artifacts as well: small personal items of little material value that gave her a sense of connection to a culture so different from small-town Iowa. That lingering curiosity pulled at her for years. She started at the art history program at the University of Iowa, then headed to New York City for a master’s degree, and on to the Rubin and to a handful of other museums.

But eventually, Lyndsey said, it was time for a change.

A few months ago she stepped up slowly onto a temporary stage in a conference room in Brooklyn’s JP Morgan Chase building and plucked a wireless microphone off the podium. She paced back and forth in front of a projector screen, her gentle blond curls bobbing. In front of her, a sea of 200 college kids sat in long rows, like a company on the parade ground, clad in a uniform of weekend-work-event business suits worn with a flair of youth—purple ties, wingtip shoes, dazzling head wraps, and colorful hijabs. Lyndsey started off with a story.

Lyndsey at her new home in uptown Manhattan, in a co-op building she went through a lengthy application process to get a spot in. Photo by Jack Crosbie for The War Horse

Lyndsey at her new home in uptown Manhattan, in a co-op building she went through a lengthy application process to get a spot in. Photo by Jack Crosbie for The War Horse

It was so silly, she said. When she got on the crowded subway train headed toward downtown Manhattan’s Union Square, she took out her earbuds and put them in without connecting them to anything, a visible barrier to any attempts at conversation. The audience of college kids nods. They get it. Most of them are lifelong veterans of the New York City subway system. They know the tricks to getting some peace and personal space during a crowded commute.

Lyndsey’s train arrived at the next station. A man got on and sat next to her. He wanted to chat and started peppering her with questions: Where did she work? Where was she headed? She pretended not to hear, bobbing her head to music that wasn’t playing. Finally, she said, he tapped her. She feigned ignorance again: “Oh, were you talking to me, I’m sorry!” He pointed at her lap where the connecting end of her Apple earbuds lay, clearly not plugged into anything.

At this point, the conference room audience cracked up. Everyone had been there.

After a pause, Lyndsey explained what she was going for, breaking down her own story as an example of the skill she was trying to teach: how to get up in front of a bunch of strangers—be they an Iraqi work crew or a boardroom of investors—and make yourself seem like a person your audience wants to trust and like. After her speech, the students broke off into smaller groups with mentors from professions that interested them. The day had been organized by a group called America Needs You, for which Lyndsey is the manager of volunteers.

Throughout the day, she walked what felt like miles in laps around the sixth floor, curls bobbing, sticking her head into different rooms to give suggestions to mentors, to check that things were going smoothly, and to chat with a few of the students, all of whom are the first in their families to go to college. As she roamed the halls, people would snag her for a moment or two to ask for help.

Lyndsey’s unit, the 185 Corps Support Battalion of the Iowa National Guard, were some of the very first National Guard troops to return home from Iraq. It was early 2005, when small towns still pulled out all the stops for military homecomings with parades and ceremonies. The unit landed at the Des Moines airport, 35 miles from their home base at Camp Dodge where all of their families were waiting. Lyndsey piled onto a bus—a jumble of rumpled fatigues weighed down by dusty gear bags—which glided out of the parking lot and onto a smaller access road near the main highway. As they merged onto the highway, a police cruiser slid in front of them and then took off. The bus picked up speed too, following the cruiser on an empty highway.

The soldiers sat with their faces pressed to the windows and watched the flashing red and blue lights of more cruisers that blocked traffic from entering the highway on every side road the bus passed, giving them a clean shot straight back to Camp Dodge. At one point, the bus drove under an overpass, where a group of families, tipped off about the unit’s route, were standing above the highway with a giant banner, waving furiously. Lyndsey was never much for the pomp and circumstance of military celebrations, but after 13 months in the desert the keening bagpipes and cheering families got to her, and she strode off the bus with her chest puffed out as far as it would go.

And there they were, her mom and dad and two brothers, standing together and crying like her. They wore gleaming bands on their wrists. At some point during her deployment, her brothers, Nate and Ian, had made stainless steel bracelets with her name engraved on them. Stepping off the bus, Lyndsey was jarred by the sight. The bracelets are traditionally worn by military members to remember fellow soldiers killed in combat or who have died back home for other reasons, including suicide. For Nate and Ian, she said, the bracelets were a constant reminder of where their sister was and what she was doing. They were a physical token her family wore when she was away and after she came home.

Ian is a more solitary member of the family, Lyndsey said. He’s the kind of guy who does his own thing and isn’t demonstrative with his emotions. But, she said, over the years, even if they hadn’t talked for a few weeks or months, the stainless steel band has remained on his wrist. In every photo of him she’s seen on social media, he’s wearing it. For Nate, the youngest of the family, the bracelet wasn’t enough. When he was in high school, younger even than Lyndsey was when she joined, he followed her into the Iowa National Guard. By the time Nate went to boot camp, Lyndsey was in the big city—New York. She made it back to Iowa for his graduation from basic training, at the same facility where she had trained over a decade before.

For about an hour, Nate stood at attention with his brothers and sisters in arms, waiting for the moment to break ranks and go greet his family. In the audience, their mother nudged Lyndsey and, in a whisper, asked if she could go hug him. A decade after she joined the service, Lyndsey watched with her family as Nate followed in her path.

“The thing that choked me up the most was thinking this will provide for him so many opportunities to be whoever he chooses,” Lyndsey said. “I know for a fact that I would still be in Iowa if I hadn’t got out through the military.”

Lyndsey in the common areas in Stuytown, the development she lived before moving to uptown Manhattan. Photo by Jack Crosbie for The War Horse

Lyndsey in the common areas in Stuytown, the development she lived before moving to uptown Manhattan. Photo by Jack Crosbie for The War Horse

After a long application process and months of research and work, she recently signed a lease on a one-bedroom apartment in a co-op building in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The military, she said, isn’t the only way to find the opportunities she has had. Two weekends every month at the America Needs You mentoring workshops, Lyndsey gets to recapture the feeling from Nate’s graduation as she watches the hardworking and ambitious students applying themselves, striving to expand their opportunities in life.

The first-generation college students come from families that have been in the United States for generations and from families that have immigrated just a few years ago—from the likes of Pakistan, Senegal, Thailand, Iraq. Lyndsey’s job is to make sure they too can experience everything the States has to offer, specifically a higher education in business, law, medicine, or art. So they can stay in their hometowns and care for their families and communities, or so they can move across the country following a different dream, like she did. Lyndsey’s service took her to Iraq, and then propelled her into a life she couldn’t have dreamed of before the National Guard.

“Being able to pay that forward in any way is my mission; that’s the thing that brings me joy.”

* * *

The Veterans Adding Value series is a multimedia project that challenges the "broken" stereotype often associated with veterans by focusing storytelling on transitions from military service into academia, social impact work, and entrepreneurship. 

This series aims to bridge the military-civilian divide through in-depth, vivid reporting and highlights the resilience, compassion, and selflessness forged through military service. 

Sarah Roberts - TeamRWB

Forging Purpose And Community One Mile At A Time


She left the military and corporate rat race behind. But Sarah Roberts kept running and is determined to help build up the community around her.

Forging Purpose And Community One Mile At A Time


She left the military and corporate rat race behind. But Sarah Roberts kept running and is determined to help build up the community around her.

By Katie Toth

It didn’t matter that the West Point guys called her Legs when she wasn’t listening, or that she felt like they stripped her down with their eyes. As Sarah Roberts barreled around the track during the Army physical fitness test that would determine whether or not she’d make it into Airborne School, she knew she belonged. When she crossed the finish line ahead of the pack, she was sure the guys knew she belonged too.

West Point puts a high value on running fast, and Sarah had impressed the military college’s scouts when she was in high school. Students had to be, in her words, a “perfect human specimen” to earn admission. A ski jump injury as a kid left Sarah with a pin in her leg. Theoretically, it could have jeopardized her admission status, but in her mind the injury was ancient history by her last year of high school. The scouts seemed to think it was ancient history too: The school granted her a medical waiver.

At West Point she quickly proved herself to be one of the school’s fastest female runners, and she worked relentlessly to get faster. “Any time I’d be out there running, chances were high there’d … be Sarah, also running,” remembers her West Point teammate, Mary Nolan. “And even if she was at the tail end of her run, she’d move back and finish out your run with you.”

When it came time to try out for the prestigious Airborne School during the summer of her third year at West Point, Sarah knew she would light up the track. Pass the Army physical fitness test and she’d be allowed into the program where, in less than a month, she’d learn how to parachute from a plane. Fail and she’d be packing her bags and heading back to West Point.

She beat every man in class except one—two miles in less than 12 minutes. She felt like she’d torn up the field. But the sense of accomplishment didn’t last long.

Hours after her run, Sarah was called to speak with her cadre leader before dinner. She’d just finished showering, so she threw on some gym clothes and ran to his office.

She says she had no idea what he would say. She feared she had done something wrong, but knew she hadn’t; school had just started.

When she arrived he tore into her. He demanded to know why she was wearing lipstick at Airborne School. She wasn’t. Sarah’s lips are bright red by nature. He cussed her out, demanding to know why she would dare disrespect the school and its rules.

West Point cadets are taught they can give four answers: “Yes sir,” “No sir,” “No excuse, sir,” and “I don’t understand.” As in:

You’re wearing makeup.

No sir, I don’t even have any in my bag.

Who do you think you are?

I don’t understand.

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

Talking back meant a fast track to getting cut from the summer program. So she listened to him talk about how makeup was promiscuous, how he hated to see female cadets slide through without following the rules, and how lucky she was to be there.

He laid into her for nearly 10 minutes before dismissing her. Sarah walked away feeling humiliated. She tears up now, thinking about how he’d made her feel dirty and embarrassed about what she now calls her “stupid red lips.” But she went back to her dorm, put on her uniform, and went to dinner. It was her fault, she figured. She was a woman who’d signed up for the military, and feeling less-than was part of the job description.

By her fifth year in the Army, after Sarah had finished her mandatory commitment, she had plenty of reasons to say goodbye.

Sarah Roberts in the woods on the Bridal Trails in Kirkland, Wash. before she takes a Team RWB Leadership run. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Sarah Roberts in the woods on the Bridal Trails in Kirkland, Wash. before she takes a Team RWB Leadership run. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

There was the moment when Sarah’s commander in Germany told her that she’d have to decide whose career to follow—hers or her husband’s—and that it shouldn’t be hers. She was a mere finance officer.

There was the day she learned her husband, Jeff—her college sweetheart and a fellow officer—had been attacked by a suicide bomber, and that his superiors had left him and his men out there for days, she said. When he returned, he was different—shorter-tempered, depressed. She couldn’t deal with it then. She was preparing for her own deployment, so they bottled up their frustration and left it for later.  

There was the day after a 15-month deployment that she and her team returned in Germany, not to the usual welcome-home fanfare that’s customary in the military but to an empty airport.

She chartered a bus for her team back to their base, and a friend's father came to pick her up and give her a ride home to her apartment. That night she sat alone in the kitchen. Dustcloths still covered the furniture.

Over the previous five years, Jeff and Sarah had seen each other for a total of 17 months, and then they got orders that they’d be heading in separate directions again. She’d go to South Carolina for training; he’d go to Arizona and then straight to Iraq.

The two applied for Sarah to join Jeff’s brigade as a budget officer so they’d be in the same city and base and get the same deployment schedule. With her finance experience, the job seemed like a perfect fit. The request went through the chain of command and was approved by nearly everyone, until her major turned down the transfer, citing “needs of the Army.”

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

She was tired of long-distance calls and meals for one. And she knew if they stayed in there’d be no end in sight. They finished their five-year commitment and said goodbye to the military.

Jeff and Sarah moved from Germany thinking it would be easier to find civilian job offers if they were stateside, but competitive interviews were still tough to come by. Employers didn’t seem to understand the high level of expertise at which they’d been operating, the responsibility they’d borne, and the teams they’d been overseeing. They received job offers only for entry-level positions.

Things finally turned around when Sarah was invited into Amazon for a prestigious position building a new recruiting operation from the ground up, one that would bring more veterans into the company.

She’d gotten an offer where she felt valued. But there wasn't much time to celebrate. The day after she went into the Seattle office to get her bearings, Sarah flew to Kentucky to tour a nearby warehouse and start recruiting area veterans to work for Amazon. She’d suit up, work 80-hour weeks, never leave her laptop. Finally she felt like she got to prove her worth.

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., picking home grown strawberries with her daughter Katelyn, 3 after returning from work with Team RWB. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., picking home grown strawberries with her daughter Katelyn, 3 after returning from work with Team RWB. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Seattle was everything Sarah and Jeff had wanted. It was hip. It was closer to family. They made it home, bought a house, had a daughter. She continued in the corporate world, getting a new job with Microsoft.

Although she felt valued for her experience, she began to feel like she couldn’t relate to the freshly minted college graduates who refused to move to Seattle for anything less than $160,000 and then rolled into the city with beautiful new cars. She and Jeff were back in the U.S. after using piss tubes and drawing gunfire, and after Sarah had watched her husband recover from the suicide bomber's attack.

Something else nagged at her: “What is the legacy I want to leave?” The military and West Point had always emphasized the role of service to others. She wanted to know she was giving back.

Around that time, a veterans service organization approached Sarah about partnering with Microsoft for help with one of its big annual events: the Old Glory Run. Team Red, White and Blue’s founder, Mike Erwin, had long believed in the power of running to bring civilians and veterans together, and to help ease the transition back home. The “most under-prescribed medication,” he called it in a 2011 story in Runner’s World, touting running’s virtues for mental health care.

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., playing with her daughter Katelyn, 3 after returning from work with Team RWB. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., playing with her daughter Katelyn, 3 after returning from work with Team RWB. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Something about the organization and its mission resonated with Sarah. When a position opened up, she applied. Taking a hefty pay cut, Sarah became Team RWB’s northwest regional director and started expanding their work through the region. Finally, she felt, she could have a real impact on a community about which she cared deeply.

That’s Sarah’s personal goal too: “I’ve started to see and believe in the importance of human connections,” she says. “How can you create that common thread with a veteran that’s known loss and a civilian who’s known loss and build that shared humanity?”

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

A lot of veterans feel displaced and disconnected from civilians when they come home, said Sarah’s colleague, Garrett Cathcart, the organization’s southeast director and a fellow West Point graduate. “A lot of Americans want to understand veterans,” he said, “[and] do more than awkwardly buy them a drink.” But many veterans tell him that when they returned home, meeting people was tough outside of the confines of a smoky VFW bar. “When you have healthy relationships with people, it’s not just drinking buddies—you’re going to be better off.”

But RWB offered something different—athleticism to build connections and community—and Sarah loved it. The longer she worked for the organization, the more she became an evangelist for its mission.

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., with her daughter Katelyn, 3 and husband Jeff, 36. Roberts is checking her email after returning home from work. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., with her daughter Katelyn, 3 and husband Jeff, 36. Roberts is checking her email after returning home from work. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Describing one veteran she’s worked with, she says he started out volunteering with them as, honestly, “a bit of a jerk”—often demanding things in emails, being short, generally seeming unhappy. That shifted when he started showing up to a storytelling event at an RWB leadership camp. As he shared his story, he broke down and realized that he had a group of fellow veterans and civilians who were there for him. He’s since thrown himself into the work, rethinking what it means to be a leader, she says.

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

Finance, like running, is a world of discrete measurements. Surpluses and deficits. Bills, coins, ledgers. And American leaders, contractors, and Iraqi warlords with whom they were trying to build alliances—everyone had a price. A herd of cattle blown up, or other collateral damage? A road that the military wanted locals to keep clear? A soldier would put piles of cash in a rucksack or small container and be sent out to pay for it personally. Combat soldiers might encounter an IED if the right person wasn’t paid in time.

As a finance officer, Sarah was in charge of more than 170 missions and $250 million—all before she was 23 years old. One of her first missions: Go pick up about 20 million in cash from a warehouse in the city of Balad. Sarah headed to the Iraqi city with a female sergeant around her age. The two women picked up 200 pounds each of stacked and packaged freshly minted bills and waited for a helicopter that would fly them back to their base. At night, the women slept on the cash to make it harder for anyone to steal.

Bartering and good relationships became the way that work got done, but for all the importance Sarah places on personal connections, she didn’t make many friends. She kept her distance from the soldiers who looked to her for leadership as a commanding officer, and she stayed away from men, wanting to avoid being the subject of innuendo or gossip. Sarah spent a lot of her time alone, working on an online master’s degree or calling her husband.

Running became a relief from all the rules. Another West Point grad named Sarah Davidson saw Sarah Roberts in the gym. Davidson knew Sarah from her reputation as an athlete and suggested they become running buddies. The two started meeting regularly to circle the base’s perimeter.

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., with her daughter Katelyn, 3 and husband Jeff, 36. Here Jeff is sharing a chocolate with their daughter. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., with her daughter Katelyn, 3 and husband Jeff, 36. Here Jeff is sharing a chocolate with their daughter. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

They ran past trailers, a row of port-a-potties, and a burn pit filled with whatever classified materials the base wanted destroyed. Away from other service members, the two Sarahs could kvetch without looking over their shoulders. They talked about their husbands, who were also in the military; home; and white tea.

“By any standard of what we experience in the U.S., it was not a nice run,” Davidson said. After all the shit, the dirt, the trucks, and the sand, they’d see a little patch of reeds and long grasses. The plants and those runs provided moments of serenity. Running had gotten Sarah through West Point and Iraq. Now, she’s hoping it will get fellow veterans through whatever’s next.

* * *

The Veterans Adding Value series is a multimedia project that challenges the "broken" stereotype often associated with veterans by focusing storytelling on transitions from military service into academia, social impact work, and entrepreneurship. 

This series aims to bridge the military-civilian divide through in-depth, vivid reporting and highlights the resilience, compassion, and selflessness forged through military service. 

THIS IS THE SLUG

Cooking Quieted Her Mind and Helped Rachael Harris Find Peace After Military Service


When she joined the Navy, Rachael Harris brought her grandfather's recipe for sour cream cornbread, but she left active duty lost and confused. Rediscovering her love for food helped her find her way home.

Cooking Quieted Her Mind and Helped Rachael Harris Find Peace After Military Service


When she joined the Navy, Rachael Harris brought her grandfather's recipe for sour cream cornbread, but she left active duty lost and confused. Rediscovering her love for food helped her find her way home.

By Michael Gaynor

Before she makes the biscuits, Rachael Harris checks a frayed yellow piece of paper pulled from the inside of a weathered notebook. It’s a collection of recipes she’s carried for the better part of a decade, and this one, on that yellow page, is her specialty.

The biscuit recipe is her own, tweaked from an old Junior League cookbook. She scoops out flour into a large steel bowl followed by shakes of salt and baking powder. She unwraps a block of butter and begins to dice it, plunking the yellow cubes into the mixture. The knife she wields moves in sync with the large tattoo of a chef’s knife on her forearm—one of many that cover the lengths of her arms.

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

A few hours from now Rachael will cart these biscuits down the street to a Georgetown park, where she’ll hawk them to the world, or at least the residents of D.C. As she pours a carton of buttermilk into the bowl, she explains that the name of her pop-up restaurant, Vic’s Homegrown, is an homage to her deceased mother, who tried to warn Rachael when she was young not to become a chef. There’s no money in that business, she’d say. Do something else.

But Rachael has always been the type of person who, when told she couldn’t do something, tried 10 times harder to get it done. “So maybe she said that on purpose,” Rachael says.

There have been plenty of times when Rachael’s been told she couldn’t do something, and many tough times when she told herself that, too. That’s why she’s here at Dog Tag Bakery, on a small side street in Georgetown, where she just finished an intense five-month program that puts veterans like her back to work by teaching business and entrepreneurship skills.

The program, run by Dog Tag Inc., is divided into a series of private classes run by Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies that are held above the bakery and hands-on experiences in the bakery, where participants learn everything from business marketing to knife skills, culminating in a certificate in business administration. Along the way the veterans attend lectures and learning labs, spend days working behind the counter, and go to support workshops designed to help them re-enter the workforce, or even—as with Rachael—open their own business.

Dog Tag has so far graduated 46 alumni, including military spouses and caregivers in addition to veterans with disabilities like PTS or traumatic brain injuries. Meghan Ogilvie, Dog Tag’s CEO, says they come with scars both visible and invisible. In Rachael’s case, she’s dealt with anxiety and depression her whole life, and says she was sexually assaulted twice during her time in the Navy, exacerbating feelings of anxiety and depression she’s carried for years. 

“There are days when I don’t really like myself,” Rachael says. On the days she wakes not liking herself, she says, she heads to the bakery—where she still finds herself almost daily, either prepping for her pop-up or just hanging out with familiar faces. And there she finds peace. Her fellow cohort members ask how she’s doing. There’s a support system, a family. “This is my Zen spot.”

Rachael checks the myriad of other dishes she’s crafting for tonight’s pop-up food stall: the bacon chocolate chip cookies in the oven, the rising focaccia she’ll use for BLTs. There’s work to be done before she can open to customers.

Dog Tag Inc. was co-founded in 2014 by philanthropist Connie Milstein and Father Rick Curry, a Jesuit priest. Born without an arm, Curry took theater classes as a child in Philadelphia to build confidence even with a disability. When he joined the Jesuits as a brother after high school, they assigned him to make bread for the order, building in him a dedication to cooking—he’d go on to write two religious-tinged, bestselling cookbooks.

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

In 1977, Curry founded the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped in New York City and Maine to offer art therapy for the disabled. After 9/11, he was called on by the military to provide similar support to amputees coming back from war, and he soon moved to D.C. to found Dog Tag, combining his lifelong passions of theater, cooking, and aiding the disabled.

Curry died in 2015 at the age of 72. But his mission lives on. Dog Tag Bakery is bright, sleek, and busy, with an upstairs classroom in which Dog Tag students take some of their classes, where they learn how to not let their disabilities prevent them from being successful on the job. Some of the veterans’ traumas make them uneasy around bright lights or having their back facing a doorway. Rather than let these anxieties consume them, Dog Tag teaches students to confront the issue, to ask for accommodations that might assuage their stress.

It’s an issue of accessibility built into the very walls of the bakery: At the entrance is an automatic glass door, which the founders had to fight to include—the building’s historic designation initially prevented them from installing it. But Curry wouldn’t let his bakery exclude anyone. Not everyone has the easiest time opening doors, as he knew himself all too well.

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

“The thing about Rachael is, always from a young age she had a wide mind,” says her father, Mark Harris. “Always vivid, kind of a dreamer. But she knew she always wanted to do something with cooking.”

When she was a child growing up in Gainesville, Va., Rachael’s grandfather taught her her first recipe: her great-great-grandmother’s sour cream cornbread. He sat her down with the list of ingredients, making her recite it back to him until she knew it by heart.

Cooking helped provide a mental escape from the darker aspects of her youth. Rachael was sexually assaulted by a family friend, a trauma that led to a certain recklessness in her personality.

“She was an on-a-whim type person, not really caring what anybody thought,” says her younger brother, Chris Harris. “She didn’t really have a direction.”

Apart from cooking, perhaps. She wanted to go to culinary school after graduating high school, but she couldn’t afford it. Community college was an option, but she didn’t want to go back to any school unless it could further her craft.

That lack of direction spun her into trouble with drugs and partying. She came back from a bender one morning to find that her mother had packed her bags and was threatening to kick her out unless she got her life together.

That’s when she considered the Navy. One night out, she got to talking with some sailors, explaining to them her dream of becoming a chef. They said the service could get her back to cooking. “We have the best chefs,” they told her.

She signed up and was assigned to be a culinary specialist on a base in California. It was there she was sexually assaulted again. Her anxiety and PTS would keep her awake at night, head spinning with thoughts of coulda, shoulda, woulda. “Like you’re being rubbed over a broken piece of glass, over and over and over,” she says. Being out in public triggered Rachael. And certain types of men and something as simple as the way they moved their hands triggered her too.

Rachael says she had a mental breakdown after the assaults, and left the Navy. She decided to keep her focus on cooking and worked as a baker’s apprentice in San Diego while living out of her Ford Explorer. But she was homesick living a coast away, missing her family and the changing of seasons she’d grown up watching in the Virginia countryside. One day, out of the blue, her boss—who didn’t own a phone or computer—disappeared without a trace, leaving Rachael stranded. She called her family and told them she was ready to come back. Two weeks later, she was home, just in time for autumn.

“In my family, every time there’s something good, or something bad happens, you cook,” says Rachael. She stopped drinking and rekindled relationships with her family over food, working on her book of recipes and cooking the turkeys with her dad at Thanksgiving.

Five years after returning home, in 2014, grief came back to Rachael. Her mom fell out of bed six hours before she was to undergo triple bypass surgery. She passed away a week later after being taken off of life support, the day before Mother's Day 2014. 

“The dam broke loose,” she says. For almost two years she was in a fog. She rarely left her apartment, and she stopped cooking too. Her extended family fell apart. The nightmares came back, and soon, she was evicted and out of a job.

“That was probably the toughest time for her,” says Chris.

That’s when she heard about Dog Tag through the grapevine from other veterans. Finally she built up the wherewithal to check out its website last year. When she did, she saw that the application deadline for the latest cohort was the next day. She raced to finish the application, making it just in time.

“Little did I know how much that trip to that website would change my life,” she says.

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

 

After joining the Dog Tag program in January, “it was like finally the light went on for her,” says her father. A lot of veterans, explains CEO Meghan Ogilvie, struggle to transition out of the service when they suddenly lack a formal structure in their lives. Dog Tag—with its demanding schedule of classes and cafe work, lectures and activities—has helped Rachael reclaim some of that structure. The dozen or so members of Rachael’s cohort stay accountable to one another, calling each other to check in if someone misses a class or seems depressed.

They became like a family, says Rachael, bonded together through their shared military experience. It’s another thing that many veterans find challenging, that loss of camaraderie. At Dog Tag, she found it again. She still talks with just about every member of her cohort at least once a week.

Dog Tag also brought her back to cooking.

“She was always bringing home-baked snacks to class for all of us,” says Leslie Caleb, a member of her cohort. “She made sure we always had food.”

Slowly, Rachael began coming out of her shell. Cassaundra Martinez, another cohort member, recalls the first time they met: “She was very shy, made little to no eye contact, fidgety. She was very uncomfortable.”

Martinez is a military spouse, an important category of Dog Tag participants. Military spouses face frequent moves when their husbands or wives are reassigned. Holding down a job can be tough. Despite having plenty of degrees and experience, Martinez has struggled to find work for months at a time. Many places of employment are reluctant to hire someone they know could be forced to move away at any given time.

Over time, Martinez and Rachael began to go on walks together along the Georgetown waterfront. “She started opening up about her mom, about how she was hell-bent on being a cook,” says Martinez. “As she would talk more about herself and her pain, her fidgeting—she hardly fidgeted at all.”

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

This sort of opening up and sharing is an important part of the Dog Tag program, harkening back to lessons from Father Curry’s theater workshops. He developed an activity called “Finding Your Voice,” in which cohort members stand up on the stage built into the bakery to tell their story.

Rachael describes it as one of the most meaningful things she did at Dog Tag. During it, the instructor (now it’s a different Jesuit priest schooled in Father Curry’s methods) repeatedly asks the person on stage, “What are you doing?” The repetition forced Rachael to truly consider the question—to look inward instead of feeling judged by people and forces beyond her control. “Don’t should on yourself” is another mantra: Curry believed trauma made you think you should be doing something else, that you’re not where you should be or doing what you should be doing. For Rachael, who had spent many a sleepless night going over such shoulda coulda wouldas, “Finding Your Voice” was transformative.

“It’s about being present in the moment—you’re walking, breathing, talking, holding yourself up,” says Martinez. “It’s recognizing all the parts of you that are working.”

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

Rachael learned how to handle her anxiety better and communicate her feelings more clearly. Mindfulness exercises let her brain relax and wander away from the thoughts that would keep her up all night or hidden away in bed for days. Her fellow cohort members say that she became more confident, shared more. “The Rachael that started is not the Rachael that left,” says Martinez.

“I started waking up not hating myself,” says Rachael. “Not feeling so shitty, learning how to be positive. That’s the biggest thing they teach you here: self-love.”

They also taught her what she needed to do to fulfill her dream of opening her own restaurant. Dog Tag did lessons on front- and back-of-the-house management, how to market a restaurant, and food ordering. Rachael even scoped out a few potential sites back by her hometown, but decided to start small with a Georgetown pop-up.

Her cohort member Leslie Caleb is another military spouse, originally from Italy. “And for Italian people, food is number one,” she says. “My parents were both chefs, so I grew up with that culture of food. It can express your emotions. It can help you get through certain situations. I think with Rachael’s cooking, she really let out her creativity. She expressed the feeling she had.”

It’s easy to see that cooking is Rachael’s creative outlet as she prepares the biscuits that take their name from her mother—Vic’s—whose attempt to dissuade her from her dream instead became a challenge to do it. After kneading a doughy block, folding and reforming it, rolling it and hammering it down, Rachael begins to cut out the circular pieces and ready them for the oven. As she moves through the kitchen, she relaxes. She puts on her favorite song—“Always Alright” by Alabama Shakes—and feels happy to hustle, to work and be accountable for herself instead of lying in bed, depressed.

“Our best times in the family were centered around food and cooking,” says her father. “I think it brings her home.”

By the end of the prep work, her shirt is dusted in flour, and her hands are slick with olive oil. She looks happy, excited for that night’s work and whatever’s next to come. “There are more good days than bad days now,” she says.

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The Veterans Adding Value series is a multimedia project that challenges the "broken" stereotype often associated with veterans by focusing storytelling on transitions from military service into academia, social impact work, and entrepreneurship. 

This series aims to bridge the military-civilian divide through in-depth, vivid reporting and highlights the resilience, compassion, and selflessness forged through military service.