Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 10, 2013

Vet launches brewery after fending off PTSD

By James Cook
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — ACME — Jeff Brooks drowned himself in alcohol after he returned home from a tour in Iraq.

Now, he’s drowning himself in work. And he's confronting his demons head on.

Brooks, 38, is developing a microbrewery on U.S. 131 North in Acme Township, an effort to show other veterans they can overcome war-related post traumatic stress disorder.

“I’ve been in the deepest, darkest places anywhere,” said Brooks, a Gaylord native and Benzie Central High School graduate. “And I want the guys coming back to have someone to look to and say, ‘Man, I can do this'.”

Brooks said he disabled about 300 improvised explosive devices during his time in Iraq in 2003-04, plus thousands more pounds of ordnance. “We just quit counting at some point,” Brooks said.

That experience led to a not-so-happy homecoming. He enjoyed being with family and friends, but he somehow he missed the edge, the inherent danger of disarming bombs nearly every day. Everyday life seemed a bit dull.

In some ways, it was like the latter parts of the film "The Hurt Locker," which also features a bomb technician who struggles to adapt to home life.

"With all of the stuff that I did in Iraq and all the stuff I saw, when I came home, it was really tough," Brooks said. "I had PTSD as bad as anybody could. It was dismal. I was beat down really hard. It's like going from 300 miles an hour to three when you get back here.

“For the next year and a half, I was drunk. Out of 30 days, I was drunk for 30 of them."

It took some honest, tough talk from a friends at local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2780 for Brooks to take a look in the mirror.

"We adopted his unit when he first went over," said Jack Pickard, a former VFW state commander. "We sent them things two or three times a month. So when they came back, we hooked up a good friendship. He had some issues. Finally, one time we were very, very blunt. 'Hey, you have to get some help. You have problems you can't handle on your own.'"

Pickard should know. He served in Vietnam and struggled with some of the same experiences when he came home. And he knew how tough it is to confront those problems.

"It was just a push from someone who knows that you can deny it all you want," said Pickard, 63, a disabled veteran. "He was one of the normal, stubborn ones. He didn't want to admit something could be wrong. He was too proud."

Pickard convinced Brooks to seek help from the Veterans Administration, where he was diagnosed with PTSD. He emerged from counseling free of alcohol dependence.

“I’ll still have a beer,” Brooks said. “But it’s not for the same reason as before.”

Four days, three explosions

In one four-day stretch in Iraq three bombs detonated beneath him, Brooks said.

"The first time we got blown up was probably the most scary, because we were completely unprotected," Brooks said. "We weren't wearing bomb suits. We didn't have any special gear on."

A group of tankers waved them down and in the process set off an IED that knocked the soldiers off the tank and tossed Brooks into the air. The blast left Brooks his partner temporarily deaf and with concussions.

Both were patched up and sent back out the next day, Brooks said.

"We got a call the next morning, and they had to write it down — the coordinates, where it was, everything," he said. "Because we still couldn't hear."

They sent a remote-controlled robot in to disarm the next IED target. Brooks was seated behind a monitor that's powered by a car battery, viewing the robot's movement when it went off.

"Because we couldn't hear, I watched the screen go from white to black," Brooks said. "I got as small as I could behind (the monitor) and all the blast frag went blowing by and the monitor slammed into me."

He was left bleeding and with another concussion. His group detonated three more IEDs later that day.

The next day was uneventful. The fourth was another matter. He was told there was an IED in a crater and approached wearing an 88-pound Kevlar bomb suit.

"I remember about 15 seconds later coming to. And here come my guys, hooking up a winch to the back of my suit to pull me out of there. I'm like, 'I'm still alive.' They thought for sure I was dead."

Brewing up help

Brooks dreamed up microbrewery Bravo Zulu to offer area military veterans, police officers and fire fighters a place to hang out, have a cold beer and relieve stress without going to the extremes he reached after his tour. He also plans to donate part of his profits to area veterans groups.

"He's going to do fantastic," said real estate agent Holly Hack, who helped him find the location. "I loved why he wants to do this. Giving back and showing vets you can come back and start a business. From Day One, I was amazed at the amount of work he did to get this business started. I know he'll do well. It's a really cool idea that he's doing. His heart is there. It's not just a love of beer; it's a love of people, which is awesome."

He hopes to have the brewery open by late April, and targeted the weekend of the 19th and 20th for his ambitious construction plan that exclusively uses local contractors.

"Over the period of seven years, working with the VA counselors and some private psychiatrists, they got me back on the right path, where I'm seeing straight and able to live with these demons that anybody with PTSD has. With this brewery, I want guys who are coming back who are in the same boat I was in to go, 'Hey, that idiot did it. I don't need to be another statistic where I'm working at Wal-Mart collecting carts ... or a suicide statistic.

"I don't care if you ever buy a beer if you walk in there and you need help."

The location — which used to be house a Family Video and a Dollar General — is 4,500-square feet and will feature a seven-barrel brewing system visible over a low wall behind the main bar.

"I think our first responders in the area don't get enough credit for what they do," Brooks said. "They're the only ones who show up to help us out in some of our worst situations ever, whether it be a fire or a car accident. I want this to be a place where they can come and relax — anyone can come a relax — but I want this to be dedicated to the first responders, military folks and veterans. All those people who show up when we're having a bad day."

“It can’t fail,” he said. “Because if it does, those families won’t get help. I won’t let that happen.”