Air Force veteran Floyd Palmer of Washington, left, and Kyle Wronsky of Rockville, Md., work on chocolate chip cookies and a cake, respectively, in the kitchen at Dog Tag Bakery in Washington on Thursday. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

With cold rain drumming down from drab skies one recent afternoon, a light-filled classroom above the warmth of Georgetown’s Dog Tag Bakery was not a bad place to be.

For three years, the bakery has hosted the Dog Tag Inc. fellowship program, a five-month-long professional development course designed to prepare military veterans for the transition into the civilian workforce.

The veterans scoop cookies and make coffee, learn knife skills and proper food-handling techniques. But they also get trained in skills like cost analysis, fundraising, marketing and product development, with the aim of equipping the fellows with all the necessary skills and know-how to succeed in the private and nonprofit sectors, said Meghan Ogilvie, the CEO of Dog Tag Inc., a local nonprofit. Come next Thursday, the program will have graduated 57 alums over six cohorts, many of whom have gone on to launch their own businesses.

“The goal is they not only see it, but they feel it,” she said.

And so inside on this day, a group of military personnel, injured veterans, military spouses and caregivers were engaged in a heated debate about a hypothetical case taught by Douglas McCabe, a professor of management at Georgetown University. Should a judge in a wrongful-discharge lawsuit side with the company and uphold the firing of an allegedly subpar employee? Or should he order that the employee be reinstated with full back pay?

Learning the ropes

Cindy Pryor of Rockville, Md., decides what to order at Dog Tag Bakery in Washington. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

Tamara Stewart stood in front of the class and made her argument.

The employee in the case study, Jack, was never warned about a potential termination, was never given clear performance goals and should be reinstated, she argued.

No, Stewart’s classmate Lauren Warner quickly shot back. The employee had been with the company for years and should have known better.

The class was at a stalemate, split right down the middle in the decision.

“One thing both groups can agree on with unanimity,” said McCabe, the professor, as he wrapped up the exercise, “is that Jack is a loser.”

The fellows all laughed at the joke. But they also knew that they, too, may soon have to deal with similarly tricky business situations outside the safety of the classroom. They scribbled down in their notepads what the company in the case study had gotten wrong, lest they themselves make the same expensive mistake.

For Stewart, 32, the fellowship program has been a comprehensive course in business as she gets ready for the transition to civilian life after nine years with the Army. Over the weeks, the fellows had worked through an intensive curriculum that covered such topics as management, accounting and communications. They had also gotten on-the-job experience throughout different areas of the nonprofit, rotating through operations and strategy, finance, fundraising, as well as the hands-on bakery operation up front. 

Now, Stewart aspires to open a boutique restaurant. And she loved learning about fundraising so much that she wants to volunteer on the fundraising committee at The Dwelling Place, a nonprofit based in Gaithersburg, Md., that provides transitional housing for the homeless.

“It’s just opened my eyes to things that I like, and things that I thought I liked, but didn’t,” said Stewart, who now works as a paralegal at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Marine Corps mobilized reservist Jessica Van Dop DeJesus works at Dog Tag Bakery. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

Telling their stories

Earlier this week, the fellows had gathered in the classroom for a close line by line reading of Langston Hughes’ poem “Jazzonia.”

Leading the session was Duncan Wu, a professor of English at Georgetown.

Why, he asked the class, has Hughes described the musicians at this Harlem cabaret as “long-headed jazzers”? Why is the dancing girl given “bold” eyes and a dress of “silken gold”?

As the fellows dove into analyzing the poem, which describes a lively scene in a 1920s jazz club, the discussion touched on themes of courage, liberation, power, history and human existence. In the dizzying whirl of music, Wu offered, people felt free, alive and emboldened.

A close reading of 20th century American poetry may not seem directly relevant to the world of business. But it is all part of the larger goal of encouraging fellows to reflect on their military identities and to be able to tell their personal narratives in a way that propels them forward.

“It’s not about being a disabled individual,” but recognizing that you have new abilities, Ogilvie said.

[This 93-year-old World War II veteran connected with his wartime love after 71 years apart]

Ximena Rozo, a 2015 alum and an industrial and textile designer, said the fellowship program helped her find her voice. As a former military spouse, she found herself constantly moving from one place to the next.

“You lose your roots every time that you move, and you start losing your sense of confidence,” she said. “I think the fellowship gave me the path to feel confidence” and to feel comfortable with her own vulnerabilities.

For Anne Barlieb, 37, who is transitioning out of the Army after 13 years of service, including an 18-month deployment in Iraq, reading Hughes’ poem prompted questions of her personal identity.

Did Hughes identify as a black author? she wondered. As a writer, she said, she often feels that readers compartmentalize her as a female veteran who writes, whereas for her, those are merely “incidental garnishments of experience.” So how should she go about navigating this terrain?

Wu told her not to overthink it.

“If you’re true to yourself, to your own experience, that is the principal thing,” he said. “The truer you are to it, the more universal your work will be.”

Toward the end of a lunch break on a recent afternoon, Mojisola Edu reflected on the past 20 weeks of the program.

Edu, 36, is a disabled veteran who served five years with the Army. She applied for the fellowship wanting to strengthen herself as a leader, she said, and has since learned a lot about her own limitations and potential.

“It gives you a sense of hope,” she said. “If you didn’t have hope before, you definitely have hope when you come here.”