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Learning about the troops over 'War stories and beer'

Aug. 19, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Devin Reagan, a Special Forces veteran who served in Iraq, spoke at War Stories and Free Beer.
Devin Reagan, a Special Forces veteran who served in Iraq, spoke at War Stories and Free Beer. (Paige Sutherland/Medill News Service)
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Despite the many wars that have taken the lives of U.S. service members, still too little is known about what it means to serve in a time of war.

Comparing what happened to the men who came back from Vietnam to those who came back from Iraq and Afghanistan shows both differences and similarities in what serving can mean.

Too often, most Americans don’t understand those experiences.

But in an event that features a group of veterans telling stories of combat over rounds of beer, veterans attempt to bridge the gap between the military and the American people.

GORUCK, the makers of backpacks and other military-grade gear, hosted a night of “War Stories and Free Beer” Thursday at Rhino Bar & Pumphouse in Georgetown.

War Stories and Free Beer is the idea of GORUCK founder and Army Special Forces Sgt. Jason McCarthy. While studying at Georgetown University in 2009, he realized there was a need to open a dialogue between veterans and civilians.

“I got a lot of questions from classmates that made me think that at that time, a decade into two wars, we need to impact society for the better sooner,” McCarthy said.

Amid questions like, “What did you do?” and “What were you?” McCarthy realized he was happy to be an ambassador for his time in the military. His goal was for his classmates with wartime experience to present their stories and share it with others so they have the opportunity to better understand what they are supporting.

While public support for the military is strong, McCarthy said too few people personally know someone in the service.

“There’s this, “Hey, support the troops,’ but War Stories and Free Beer is designed to say, “Yeah, but learn about them too ... learn about who those people are,’ ” he said.

During the two-hour event, four veterans each share a deployment story, along with personal photographs. After the stories are told, audience members can ask questions.

The stories are meant to inform and humanize as well as entertain. At the end of Thursday’s event, people’s cheeks hurt from laughing.

Capt. David Waikart, a military intelligence officer, had the crowd roaring as he poked fun at the Special Forces and Rangers who “take themselves too seriously in their black Oakley sunglasses.”

“I had my fair share of excitement, but for the most part I sat in an office and worked on my weapon system of choice — a computer,” Waikart said. “Sometimes we had all-night lamination parties.”

This was Waikart’s second time speaking at the event. His presentation, titled, “The War You Don’t See,” aims to show a side of the military many aren’t familiar with, such as support functions. Waikart spent most of his time providing essential information that often saved the soldiers fighting on the front lines.

“There are so many parallels between the military and everyday life that people just don’t understand,” Waikart said. “I think events like this gives your average person another window into the organization that’s supposed to defend them.”

Each of Thursday’s speakers has presented his story before. Perhaps that’s why they could easily laugh at how digging for mines was “so chill.” But if a veteran has never spoken publicly about their service, GORUCK coaches and promises an atmosphere anchored by a “universal love of beer.”

McCarthy said beer will always be provided because it serves as a symbol. He said he drank a lot of beer with great folks when he was in the military, and he’s had just as much with other great people since he’s been out.

“Beer is just one of those things that makes you smile,” McCarthy said. “This room might as well be a backyard, and you might as well just be chatting.”

Veterans do not wear their dress uniforms. The environment is set up to be as unthreatening as possible, to show that those who have reasons not to have a sense of humor, do have one.

Capt. Mark Little spent eight years in the Army. He lost his legs from an explosively formed penetrator in southern Iraq in 2007.

This was Little’s third time speaking at “War Stories and Free Beer.” He told the crowd that during his time in the military, he was neither a “door-kicker” nor a “geeky guy,” but a professional bullseye.

“The intent is to convey, here’s a day in the life of a deployed military service member,” Little said. “It doesn’t have to be the best day ever or the worst day ever, but there’s successes, there’s failures, there’s happiness and injury, you’re gonna experience all of that in a week deployed to a combat zone.”

And even though Little’s story can be considered sad, he brought a unique perspective to the audience — and drew the most laughs.

“I left half of my government property in Iraq,” Little said. “But we are the most resilient force in the entire world, we’ll get hit, we’ll get back up, it’s no big deal.”

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