By Steve Stolder / Starbucks Newsroom
Deborah Hinojosa-Prater learned to recognize what Scott Walden calls his “quirks.” The signs were subtle: sometimes it was simply noticing a change in the tone of his voice – imperceptible to almost anyone else – or he’d suddenly become fidgety. When that happened, the Starbucks store manager would quietly suggest that the 45-year-old take a short break from work or she would redirect him to a task that took him away from whatever it was that was creating anxiety.
Walden was a U.S. Air Force veteran who served for 22 years. Stationed in South Korea and deployed numerous times, he’d developed Post-Traumatic Syndrome. After he retired from the military in 2014, Hinojosa-Prater hired him as an assistant store manager at the San Antonio Starbucks Military Family Store. Among his duties was working the drive-thru window, something that filled him with anxiety.
“I don’t know if I can really describe it,” said Walden. “My thought was, vehicles pull up. I don’t have a full view of everything going on. To me, I was stuck in a corner. If you put a cat or a dog in a corner, what’s going to happen?”
The Indiana native ultimately decided that the bustle of Starbucks wasn’t for him. After six months on the job, he told Hinojosa-Prater that he was moving on, and thanked her – for always having his back.
“I wouldn’t have lasted that long if not for Deborah,” said Walden. “Anytime I would say something to her about what I was feeling, she would understand. It’s tough to explain to somebody in what I would say are civilian terms. It’s hard to put that across to somebody.
“She understood because of her brother.”
A family history of service
Military service is a tradition in Hinojosa-Prater’s family. Her grandfather on her mother’s side, Urbano Gonzales, was one of seven brothers who enlisted to serve in World War II. Some were underage and had to lie to get in. Remarkably, even though all the brothers saw combat, they all made it back home to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
Hinojosa-Prater’s two younger brothers also felt the call to serve. Roy Jr., the middle child, was in the Army for eight years, doing two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. David, the youngest, has been in the Air Force for eight years and had served one tour in Afghanistan.
Hinojosa-Prater, 35, was born in San Antonio and raised mostly in Raymondville, which she describes as a “blink-and-you-miss-it” town near the southernmost tip of Texas. She returned to San Antonio in 2000 to attend college, but dropped out, had a daughter and found work with a grocery retailer.
After 11 years on the job, she began looking for a new company that would provide a better quality of life. She interviewed with Starbucks in 2011 and was shocked to receive an email offer before she’d left the building. When Starbucks began laying the groundwork for its Military Family Store program, Hinojosa-Prater was selected to manage one of the seminal stores at Lackland Air Force Base.
When she took the job, she didn’t fully understand the then-new mission of Military Family Stores – to support and honor veterans, military spouses and active-duty service members. Once she grasped the role her store played in the company’s efforts to bridge the military/civilian divide, she was all in.
Starbucks district manager Patricia Revollo, a mainstay as a volunteer supporting the military around San Antonio, got used to seeing Hinojosa-Prater at military and community events, often accompanied by her daughter Mia, who’s now 11.
Goodwill’s Operation: Good Jobs and Starbucks commitment to hire 10,000 veterans and military spouses by 2018 (since increased to 25,000 by 2025) had a highly motivated champion in Hinojosa-Prater. Her brother Roy, who'd exited the Army in 2013 and had PTS, was back in San Antonio and struggling to find employment. David, who’d also been diagnosed with PTS, had also transferred back to the area and was at a breaking point.
‘This doesn’t happen to us’
In September 2016, David attempted suicide. Fighting back tears, Hinojosa-Prater vividly recalled the confusion she felt when her mother called with the news.
“I remember saying, ‘Us? I’m one of the people who help them. This doesn’t happen to me. This doesn’t happen to us.’”
As she and her mother drove to the hospital to see David, she began to see her initial desperate response in a new light: She was one of the people who help, and she was uniquely prepared to help her brother.
“I remember, when we drove up to the hospital at Fort Sam Houston, telling my mom, ‘You know, everything is going to be OK.’ I remember saying, ‘I deal with this and I know people who can help us.’ That was our mantra through this whole thing: We weren’t by ourselves because any time we need anything I know who to call. I could call one of our district managers, Patricia, who is really close to the military. I could call the USO. I could call The Mission Continues if we needed to.
“Because Starbucks has those programs and connections, and I was the one chosen to manage this store, I knew what to do.”
Roads to recovery
Today, Roy has found work in San Antonio as a phlebotomist. He has difficult moments spurred by his PTS, his sister said, but “he knows how to get himself out.”
David recovered and remains in the Air Force. “It was a big family effort,” Hinojosa-Prater said. “It was a lot of work for us, and a lot of work for him, but he’s doing fantastic.”
Walden, who now works as the civilian director of inspections for the 37th Training Wing at Lackland Air Force Base, stopped by his old Military Family Store last month. There he struck up a conversation with Fernando Ascencio, a former Marine who recently transferred to Hinojosa-Prater’s store. Walden extolled his former boss for her insight.
She teasingly poo-pooed Walden’s praise, but he’s hardly alone in his appreciation for her compassion.
“She goes the extra distance,” said Revollo. “She’s an inspiration, and she has a heart of gold.”
“If I could do just one thing for somebody – anybody – it is to make them feel they’re not a stranger to society,” Hinojosa-Prater said. “You’ll see too many times that people getting out of the military feel that nobody understands them. Nobody understands why they shake. Nobody understands why they’re quiet. Nobody understands that they want to be by themselves, or that noise makes them jump.
“If I could understand just one person and let them know that it’s going to be OK, that’s all I wanted to do in my journey.”
For more information on this story, contact the Starbucks Newsroom