“Perfect,” Milena Mateo-Ortiz, 47, says as she weighs a pat of butter on an electronic scale at Union Kitchen, a shared cooking space in Northeast. On this day in September, the smell of chocolate hangs in the oven-baked air. When Milena isn’t looking, her husband, Lizandro Mateo-Ortiz, 51, removes a smidgen from the scale to make the measurement more exact.
The two, wearing matching M&M T-shirts, work with the speed and precision of an experienced emergency room team as they prepare puff pastries.
“When you’ve been married for 24 years, you learn how to work together,” Milena says.
Despite their dexterity in the kitchen, neither has a professional background in baking. But as members of the inaugural class of Dog Tag Inc., both are eager to learn.
The new local nonprofit, founded by philanthropists Rick Curry and Connie Milstein, looks to baking as a way to ease wounded veterans and their spouses back into civilian life.
During the six-month program, fellows run a storefront in Georgetown dubbed Dog Tag Bakery, where they interact with customers, fulfill catering orders and prepare cookies, banana bread, French loaves, eclairs and tea cakes. The bakery, at 3206 Grace St. NW, officially opens to the public on Saturday. (Construction on the storefront recently wrapped, which is why fellows had been recipe-testing out of Union Kitchen.)
It’s not all profiteroles and powdered sugar for participants.
A fellowship with Dog Tag Inc. also includes a rigorous course load at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, where members take classes in corporate finance, marketing, principles of management and business statistics.
Each of the seven veterans in the inaugural Dog Tag class — who were selected from a pool of 117 applicants — graduated last month with a certificate of business administration.
“Our success will depend on how successful our students are upon leaving,” says Meghan Ogilvie, the program’s chief operating officer. “Our vets deserve not only a quality education, but a quality job.”
The program’s demanding schedule is a natural fit for Lizandro, who learned to embrace structure in a strict family of nine. That background served him well when he joined the Army in 1981.
“In three years, I was a staff sergeant,” Lizandro says. “Normally that takes seven years.”
In 2007, while Lizandro was stationed in Iraq, his utility vest got snagged on a Humvee and he was dragged underneath. He managed to get loose, and rolled to safety after he was nearly crushed by a back tire.
During the accident, Lizandro’s stomach ended up in his throat, and he had to have multiple surgeries to reposition it, as well as surgeries on his shoulder, knees, ankles and spine.
Today, Lizandro is able to walk with a cane and a leg brace. “You just deal with life as it comes, one day at a time,” he says.
He and Milena hope to apply the skills they learn through Dog Tag Inc. to opening a Latin American restaurant in the D.C. area.
Fellow Dog Tagger Anthon Calix-Hestick expects he’ll pursue a career in marketing rather than the culinary arts. (He jokes that he can barely make cake in a box and dislikes washing dishes too much to cook professionally.)
“I never saw myself in this kind of program. I told my buddies and they laughed,” says Calix-Hestick, who served in the Marines. “But being around other vets and spouses in the program helps me readjust. If you’re a vet, you understand what I’m going through, so it’s easier to relate with someone that’s been there.”
One of Calix-Hestick’s favorite parts of the program is the communications class — or, as members have come to refer to it, “theater class.”
“It’s really big on explaining how we feel and all of our emotions,” he says. “We learn how to broadcast our stories properly so people can relate.”
The class prepares veterans for occasional spoken-word events that will take place at the bakery, which is equipped with a stage where veterans will address audiences about their experiences.
Another member, Sedrick Banks, is an Army vet who suffered brain injuries in combat.
He plans to apply his business skills to becoming a life coach and starting his own nonprofit.
“I could go into all the training that Dog Tag has offered, but the biggest thing it’s helped me with is transitioning from a wounded warrior back into society,” Banks says. “It’s helped me recognize my capabilities, despite my injuries.”
From Baghdad to bakery
In addition to the seven fellows, Dog Tag Bakery employs a support staff of men and women with experience in combat zones, who technically aren’t veterans because they haven’t served in the military.
Sham Hasan, above right, is a former translator for the U.S. Army who was born and raised in Baghdad, where he studied English. In 2006, he was kidnapped and tortured by militia because his uncle was caught supporting the Kurdish military.
Upon being rescued, Hasan worked as a translator for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and at the U.S. security gate at Baghdad International Airport. In 2011, Hasan became a U.S. Army senior interpreter.
After a 3½-year bureaucratic struggle, Hasan received a visa and moved to the United States. “I made it from Iraq to here and this is my first job,” Hasan says. “Dog Tag is my second home.”
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