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.

Rachael Harris sells the biscuits she named after her mother, Vic, and made at Dog Tag Bakery in Georgetown in Washington, D.C.Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

Rachael Harris sells the biscuits she named after her mother, Vic, and made at Dog Tag Bakery in Georgetown in Washington, D.C.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.”

Rachael Harris shows off a chocolate chip cookie she made and is selling at a popup bakery store in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Photo by April Greer for The War Horse

Rachael Harris shows off a chocolate chip cookie she made and is selling at a popup bakery store in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. 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.