VIDEO: Two Marines: Brothers In War And Coffee
This is the story of two men. Both Marines. Both served in the Middle East. Both struggled when they returned. One Durham coffee shop brought them together and helped them re-connect to civilian life.
Ryan Wetter did two tours in Afghanistan. He conducted reconnaissance, often under cover of darkness. He is the 19th Marine in his family to serve since the Korean war. He always knew he'd be a Marine. "Its like telling kids not to be a superhero. You see a superhero running around, that's what you want to be."
Ryan was ready to die for his country. "I went over with the mindset that my luck will run out, it's an honor to die." Why fear it? he asks. "I am a firm believer that when it's your time to go, it is time to go."
Wetter doesn't often tell stories from his time overseas. But on a recent morning he talked about one of the most difficult days of the war. His unit was tasked to clear the village of the local Taliban commander. Things got hot, there was a lot of shooting. Ryan was relatively safe, behind a wall, bullets whizzing over his head, when he heard "shooter down" over the radio.
Several Marines had been on top of nearby buildings, providing cover for those on the ground. It was one of those men who'd been shot, Ryan's friend Ben Tomlinson. Ryan's a medic, so other Marines discharged a barrage of artillery to cover him while he crossed an open area, and climbed to the rooftop. It was bad, Ben had been shot in the neck. Ryan had to figure out how to get his friend down off the roof, and keep him stable.
When they finally got Ben off the roof, Ryan thought his friend was dying. Ryan said he was determined to do what he could. "Hell no, you’re not done!" Soon Ben's eyes widened and his lungs inflated. Ryan told his friend, don't do that again! That sucked!
Ben survived, but is now paralyzed. Ryan says that day was the scariest day of his life. He says he'd take getting shot at a thousand times, rather than be the one standing by, watching a friend fight for his life.
That day, and others like it are hard to let go of when you come home from active duty. Ryan Wetter left the Marines, and then he struggled. He got a DUI, and got evicted. He had a hard time in school and at work.
"For a while there I felt lost," he says "I lost my identity." He was really good at being a Marine, and life in the civilian world was hard. He'd done so much with his life at a young age, it was hard to take orders from any boss, much less someone who'd never served. This is going to sound pompous, he says, but he felt like "Who are you to be bossing me around?" when he dealt with people in authority.
One day Ryan heard about another Marine, Matt Victoriano. Matt had served as a sniper during the war in Iraq, and was coping with post traumatic stress. He was also doing something interesting, opening a small business: Intrepid Life Coffee & Spirits in Durham, NC.
WUNC has been following Matt's story since before the business opened. Ryan heard Matt on the radio, talking about how hard it is to leave active duty behind, and come back to your life, and open a business. So Ryan went to Intrepid Life and applied for a job.
Matt was meant to be a sniper. He gravitates towards solitude, and one man missions. "I read a book about being a Marine sniper when I was in high school. That captivated me," he says. "No other job is as independent. I like to think on my own, do my own thing."
After he left the Marines, he decided to open a coffee shop. He had no money, and no training, and he was trying to do everything by himself. It was hard.
Dealing with builders, contractors, web hosting services, getting the right coffee beans, equipment, furniture. There was a lot to do. And it was too hard to do alone. He says he had to learn to collaborate more, humble himself, ask for help.
And so when this other Marine, Ryan Wetter applied for a job, even though Ryan had been experiencing some troubles, Matt hired him. Matt says that Ryan's military leadership background was even more important than his more recent issues. "I knew I could trust someone like that."
So Matt gave Ryan some quick training and put him behind the counter, where he now often runs the show. He's learned to make specialty coffees. He cleans up, operates the register, jokes with customers. But what really works between the two is the constant connection. They talk a lot. Ryan has deep respect for Matt's leadership. Matt in turn, trusts Ryan implicitly.
Matt's learning that he can't go it alone in business. Ryan's learning that he can take orders again.
Matt Victoriano has been more than a good boss to Ryan Wetter.
When Matt found out Ryan had been evicted, he offered him a spare room in his home. The two now live together. And the conversation outside of work, about the Marines, and their shared experiences is helping.
Ryan says that talking with Matt, just "shooting the sh**t," helps him more than counseling ever has. Matt says that he's dealt with many of his own issues. He's trying to to give fewer orders to his wife. He's learning to respect the opinions of family members, even if they haven't served in the military. And now, with Ryan, he's got this big opportunity to help a fellow Marine who's been struggling.
"It's a brotherhood," Matt says. You have to work hard to break the brotherhood of the Marines. If a veteran who has been through so much goes downhill, "You don't jump ship, you gotta help pull him back up. If you were that capable back in the day, you were honorable, that didn't disappear, you just need to get back to that level."
Matt and Ryan will be featured on UNC-TV's North Carolina Now Friday night, March 28th. The show starts at 7:30. We will post the video here when it's available.