Bakery comes to the aid of US veterans

A Jesuit priest seeks to close the gap between unemployed soldiers with disabilities and the able-bodied world.


    The rain was pouring down outside the Dog Tag Bakery, but once we walked through the sliding doors, the smell of cinnamon buns and fresh bread made me forget about the damp weather.

    In many ways, it could be any bakery in the world with a delicious selection of pastries and sandwiches, but this place is different.

    This bakery's stated mission? "Making it deliciously simple for you to empower the lives of our veterans [US] and military families."

    The decor inside is elegantly understated yet patriotic: white and crisp woodwork with splashes of red, white and blue in the booths.

    Hanging from the ceiling are metal military identification necklaces called "dog tags".

    Veteran identification tags, called dog tags, hang as a chandelier at the Dog Tag Bakery run by US veterans of war [Al Jazeera, Eric Taylor]

    They are hung here as an art installation and fund-raising effort.

    You can purchase a dog tag and have it engraved on a Vietnam-era engraving machine that is place right next to the chandelier.

    Sitting in a booth underneath the Dog Tag mobile is the proud founder of the bakery, Father Rick Curry, a Jesuit priest.

    Born with only one fully formed arm, he has spent his entire life facing obstacles.

    He admits it was tough growing up in a two-fisted world but he turned it around into viewing it as a gift.

    He seems to always have a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye,

    His enthusiasm is infectious and you can feel the joy and peace he brings to the bakery.

    When he entered the Jesuits, he was drawn to the kitchen and began a career as a baker.

    He was so successful that his cookbook, The Secrets of Jesuit Bread Making, became a New York Times best-seller.

    Why start a bakery?

    "A bakery is a happy place," he said.

    "You don't go to a bakery to be sad. You go to a bakery to be happy, and I wanted a place veterans with disabilities, and their spouses, and their caregivers, in an atmosphere that would be happy.

    "I want that interchange between the veterans with disabilities and the able-bodied world to engage them in something very positive, meaningful and happy."

    'Viewed as traitors'

    While we were upstairs in the office and classroom space setting up lights to interview Father Curry on camera, Sham Hassan was busy flitting between organising the red, white and blue bakery boxes and packaging tray after tray of brownies.

    "I am an Iraqi citizen, originally Kurdish. Born and raised in Baghdad, I came to the United States through a special visa project for those who provided special services to the US government," he told Al Jazeera.

    "We were viewed as traitors and hated by extremist groups."

    Hassan served as a linguist for the US army, translating Arabic and Kurdish. After fleeing Iraq in fear for his life, he had low expectations for what his life would be like.

    Iraqi citizen Sham Hassan, who worked as a translator during the Iraq war, works at the Dog Tag Bakery [Al Jazeera, Eric Taylor]

    Then he found the Dog Tag Bakery.

    He was beaming because he had recently been accepted into their six-week fellowship programme in conjunction with the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University.

    All of the veterans in the programme have some sort of disability, either physical or psychological such as post-traumatic stress.

    The goal of the programme is to give recent veterans a solid background in business administration and help launch them into a new career.

    "Dog Tag Bakery helped me find out about hobbies and interests I didn't know about before. After I graduate I might be able to open my own business and start a career in food," Hassan said.

    Despite the rainy weather, a steady stream of visitors came into the bakery while we were there.

    Justin Ford, general manager of Dog Tag Bakery and former paratrooper, says the business has grown about 10 percent every month since they opened last November.

    "We've been here six months. The bakery is thriving," he said.

    "We have graduated our first fellow who went through the entrepreneurial programme, and we really couldn't be happier. We truly believe it is an honour to look at the disabled veterans and say to ourselves 'They are leaders'."

    Father Curry said: "We have to get them back into a position where they can take their leadership roles in the civilian world.

    "The power of the men and the women who have gone to war and come back is extraordinary. We can't leave them powerless. It is an honour to bring them back into a society where they belong."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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