Giving GIs their joe: The beans on how two high school buddies are energizing troop moral

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nick Przybyciel
  • 446th Airlift Wing
It's an old saying that an army marches on its stomach. However, there's also a common assumption that even the most satiated soldiers have a few gripes about the quality of their grub.

But a lot has changed from the John Wayne days of war fighting (think images of green meat and chemically preserved gruel-in-a-can, ala "Sands of Iwo Jima"). While today's field rations may not be gastronomic works of art, they have become rather palatable over the years, with sophisticated choices like chicken and cavatelli being offered to today's war fighter.

And thanks to a couple of old high school buddies here, more than a few servicemembers fighting the War on Terror have something delicious to swig that food down with. Together, the duo - one an Air Force Reserve C-17 loadmaster and one a Starbuck's manufacturer manager - have helped provide what they estimate to be more than 10,000 pounds of Seattle's iconic brand of coffee to military servicemembers.

Master Sgt. Terry Acton, an Air Force Reservist from the 728th Airlift Squadron here, and his life-long friend, Starbuck's employee Bret Frye, have actually given away more than just gourmet coffee since beginning the endeavor four years ago. From bean grinders and espresso machines, to flavored syrups and exotic teas, the two friends are doing more than their part to keep our troops caffeinated on the battlefield and at home.

To put the amount of coffee given away into perspective, one just has to do a little math. At 50 shots of espresso per pound, converted into 12 ounce lattes (a Pacific Northwest favorite), there would be enough to fill 1,302 bathtubs with the highly-caffeinated beverage.

"It makes me feel good to support not only Terry, but also the troops over there," Mr. Frye said. "They're gone for 18 to 24 months and it's nice to give them a taste of home."
For his part, Sergeant Acton delivers the goods for completely altruistic purposes - there is no skimming off the top, despite what would be an impossible temptation for most. "It's just something for me to carry. I don't even drink coffee," said the loadmaster who flies on regular missions into Iraq and Afghanistan.

What makes Mr. Frye and Sergeant Acton's effort even more impressive is the fact that it isn't part of an official partnership between the company and the Department of Defense. Instead, it's just something that two friends have scrapped together on their own, with a bit of help from co-workers.

"Many Starbucks partners like Bret have taken their own time and efforts to bring our troops a taste of home," said Bridget Baker, a Starbucks spokesperson. "Their individual efforts are a great demonstration of the passion Starbucks partners have for their communities. As a company, we've been able to donate 100,000 pounds of coffee to the Red Cross that is then distributed to troops serving overseas."

The deal works like this:

Mr. Frye receives giant boxes of surplus Starbucks goods that are no longer marketable, but still fresh, from the roasting plant and distribution center that he works at in Kent. From there, he drops it off to Sergeant Acton, who relies on help from his co-workers to get it on a C-17 and downrange.

Since DoD transportation regulations prohibit the transportation of cargo from outside agencies in most cases, Sergeant Acton or one of his squadron mates has to treat the shipment - normally about 500 pounds per trip - as personal luggage.

For helping Sergeant Acton lug the 10-20 boxes on and off the airplane, he'll hand out a bit of the beans as a reward to whoever decides to be a good samaritan that day. "They don't even know what's in the boxes when they're piled on the bus. But for stepping up and helping me get them off the bus and onto the plane, I'll give them a bag of coffee or two," he said.

He'll leave a little less than half of the shipment with the aircrew and personnel being transported overseas. It's one perk that most first-class travelers on commercial airliners don't even have: "We've got our own Starbucks in our in-flight kitchen," Sergeant Acton joked.

After landing at a base in a staging area, the rest of the coffee gets stored until Sergeant Acton can take the beans into Iraq or Afghanistan. Once there, he'll give it to whomever he can, no matter what branch of service, to make their life a bit more comfortable.

"It all goes out to individuals. The stuff doesn't end up in the commander's office, or anything like that. It's just a way of rewarding anyone that wears a uniform for the jobs they do everyday," Sergeant Acton said.

Although Mr. Frye is Sergeant Acton's source, Mr. Frye emphasized that he has received a lot of help from his employees at the Kent roasting plant to make it work. "I can't even take credit for the idea," he said.

When several of Mr. Frye's coworkers began trying to ship coffee to deployed servicemembers with their own money about five years ago, their efforts had limited results. Sometimes the packages would get to the wrong person, sometimes they would be sent back to the sender.

"Then we tried to get Terry to deliver it to specific soldiers whenever he flew into Iraq, but that didn't work out, either. So, we thought, 'Hey, why don't we just do it for everyone?'" Mr. Frye said.

Four years and thousands of grateful, if jittery, GIs later, both Mr. Frye and Sergeant Acton are humble about their roles.

"Basically our whole plant and lots of Terry's coworkers are involved in this - it's bigger than just us," Mr. Frye said. "It's like that old quote, 'Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame."