As Hurricane Lee blazed its way up the coast in September, masons rushed to put the finishing touches on a low stone wall that would complete the newest monument at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter. The hurricane turned out to be a non-event, so with the wall complete, the state’s first monument honoring Indigenous veterans was dedicated on September 20 in a ceremony that included speakers, blessings, and honor songs.
This dedication was the culmination of a project that started in 2020 when Charles Smith, a cemetery specialist at Veterans Memorial and member of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe, approached the Tomaquag Museum. “He was concerned that there was no monument for Indigenous veterans,” says Lorén Spears, museum executive director, who helped create the Honoring Indigenous Veterans Committee to move the project forward. Over several years, the committee raised $80,000 to hire Indigenous masons to bring their carefully sketched design to life. The monument is made up of an archway that curves over a memorial stone engraved with the names of the 12 tribes represented by Indigenous veterans interred at the cemetery.
“The reality is that Indigenous people have served in all branches of the military,” says Spears. “Since the Revolutionary War, the Indigenous have had the highest number of people, per capita, in the armed services. In my community, if you’re not a veteran, it’s likely your life is touched by one.” Spears says this is owed to multiple factors. “Indigenous communities have warrior societies. There’s a lot of respect for warriors and pride in protecting your family and community. Of course anyone who protects their country does it with pride, but there’s an extra layer of pride when it’s your homeland.
And the lack of any kind of monument to Indigenous service [in this state] is an oversight that was long due to be corrected.”
Nicole O’Brien, owner and founder of Warwick gift shop Operation Made, is a former military spouse who was the recipient of a different type of community support. Years ago, O’Brien was stationed in Japan with her then-husband, and other military members offered her much-needed encouragement as she launched her fledgling art business. When she returned to the states, she found great success with her business, and opened a manufacturing facility that had more space than she needed. So she reached out to other creatives in her military community, inviting them to join her.
“On Veterans Day in 2018, I opened a little shop with 12 vendors in it,” O’Brien says. Today, Operation Made serves as a consignment platform for 80 different vendors who have either served in the military or are family members of veterans, creating a space for them to grow their product-based businesses. “I had no idea there was such a need for this,” she relays. “Military makers really want a platform.”
Among the products on display are everything from pet toys to hot sauce. “We have a wide range,” O’Brien says. But she does much more for military makers than offer them shelf space in her shop. “I keep everything low cost so that they can test their products and pricing strategies,” she says. “And if they need help creating a manufacturing process or promoting themselves, I assist them with that, too.”
Although O’Brien’s store is designed to help makers build a business, she recognizes that not all of her vendors are interested in selling their products in volume on their own. “A lot of veterans started making art as therapy, so they simply want to make stuff,” she says.
To support veterans’ mental health, she recently turned a portion of her shop into what she calls the Impact Room, a space dedicated to bringing awareness to the high rate of suicide among veterans. “On average, 22 veterans commit suicide every day,” says O’Brien. The Impact Room will have a memorial to veterans who have died by suicide, and there will be resources for veterans struggling with mental illness. “If they want to make stuff or learn to make stuff, I’m here with the resources to help them do that,” she explains. “Art is so therapeutic.”
Bob Mastin, owner of Custom House Coffee in Middletown, pays particular attention to those he calls “the codgers” who visit his shop; like O’Brien, he understands the struggle veterans face. “I like to look out for veterans, especially those from my era,” he says. “We weren’t treated very well after we returned from Vietnam. Let’s just say you wouldn’t advertise your military association.”
Mastin opened Custom House Coffee over two decades ago, and nearly every year since has hosted Military Mondays, when active duty and military veterans receive half-off brewed coffee and freshly roasted coffee beans. “It’s been a big hit,” says Mastin. But about 10 years ago, he decided he wanted to do more and started Veteran Coffee Roasters, an offshoot of Custom House Coffee. One dollar of every pound sold goes to veteran support organizations. “The majority of our support goes to Operation Stand Down Rhode Island,” Mastin continues, describing the Johnston-headquartered non-profit that supports veterans at risk of homelessness. “We are able to donate an average of more than $300 a month to them.”
No matter if the coffee is sold under the Custom House label or the Veteran Coffee label, Mastin puts his exacting attention to detail into it. “We roast our own coffee because it has to be the absolute best. We never do anything halfway,” he says, explaining that Custom House roasts a new batch every day. “It’s not the most efficient way to roast, but it keeps the beans as fresh as possible.”
In addition to selling bags of beans direct to consumers, Mastin has plenty of wholesale customers across the country. Locally, Tom’s Market in Warren stocks their beans and Belle’s Cafe at the shipyard in Newport pours Custom House’s Bosun’s Blend. “The name is short for Boatswain’s Mate. That’s a real salty job on the Navy ship – real sailor kind of stuff,” says Mastin.
If these businesses and initiatives are any indication, Rhode Island has a fiercely supportive community that’s making a real difference in the lives of local veterans.
Whether honoring veterans’ sacrifices or bolstering businesses run by military families, here’s how to connect with the organizations included in this article:
Custom House Coffee
Native American Veterans Monument
Operation Stand Down
Veterans Day is on November 11. Spend the day attending your town’s local parade, paying your respects at memorial services and cemeteries, or donating to organizations supporting veterans’ causes. A special Salute to Veterans WaterFire lighting takes place November 4 recognizing veterans, military personnel, and family members.
Disabled American Veterans
Providence | DAV.org
Jewish War Veterans of RI
Memorial Wall of Honor at the Lincoln Park Cemetery
Portugal Veterans Memorial at the RI Veterans Cemetery
Exeter | RIDayOfPortugal.org
Veterans Memorial Museum RI
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