Refueling Holloman: suicide prevention through hand-crafted beverages

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Corinna Sanabia
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs

“More than anything, my time at Refuel taught me to be gentle with others.”

Nearly 14 years ago, Holloman’s chapel corps identified a problem: suicide rates were increasing among the population of dorm residents and their efforts to combat it were not having a large enough impact.

In response, the idea of the Refuel Cafe came to fruition, a cafe that not only offered free drinks for Airmen living in the dorms, but also a safe place to gather and connect with one another.

Ann and Joe Brinegar have been involved with the Refuel Cafe since it opened its doors in December 2011. As a former Seabee for the U.S. Navy, Joe began his involvement by assisting with the construction of the cafe, but he and his wife, Ann, stayed for the Airmen. Joe became the Refuel Cafe coordinator, with Ann by his side as a volunteer.

“We started coming to the chapel on base when we moved here and Joe offered to help with the construction,” said Ann. “We stayed on as volunteers for years and we’ve been involved in the leadership part of the cafe for about the last five years.”

The mission of the cafe was simple: suicide prevention. Ann has made it her personal goal to become the dorm grandmother. Every Saturday and Sunday evening when the cafe opens, she sits in the courtyard for hours, just listening to the Airmen who come by.

“What 75-year-old grandma wouldn’t love to brag that they get to hang out with F-16 crew chiefs and MQ-9 sensor operators,” said Ann. “These Airmen really are the best of the nation. To sit and talk with these beautiful young people is an absolute privilege.”

While Ann and Joe have countless stories of Airmen they have connected with over the years, there is one Airman who credits the couple with transforming the course of his life.

Lamar Munson was stationed at Holloman from 2017 to 2020 and was assigned to the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, directly across the street from Refuel. As a young Airman assigned to his first duty station, Munson was looking for a space where he felt like he belonged.

“I went to Refuel one day because I saw it open and walked in and just really enjoyed the atmosphere,” said Munson. “When I met Ann and Joe, they effectively adopted me and brought me into their family. Joe taught me pretty much everything I know about woodworking and being patient, both in love and in life. Ann taught me to do right by people who’ve wronged me even when it’d be easy to become resentful.”

Despite separating from the Air Force due to health complications, Munson looks back on his time spent at the Refuel Cafe as not only impacting his life, but also the Airmen around him.

“I’ve watched people who come in destroyed and unsure if they can survive another day, be picked up and given the tools to survive,” he said. “Ann and Joe literally save lives just by being gentle with Airmen.”

Munson is just one of many young Airmen who found a safe haven within the Refuel Cafe. The impact Ann and Joe have made at Holloman has fostered a culture of community among the dorm residents.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Carl Bernier, 49th AMXS unit deployment manager, has been a part of the Refuel Cafe for the last eight years.

“I began as a normal volunteer, working four-hour shifts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” he said. “As a new Airman with no friend group or plans for my weekends, it was a perfect fit to occupy my time. It got me out of my dorm just about every weekend and I made many long-lasting friendships during my time there.”

Not only did Bernier find a home within the cafe, but he also learned valuable life lessons he still carries with him today.

“One thing that has stuck with me is something I was told when I was learning the customer service aspect of volunteering there,” he said. “I was told, ‘it doesn’t matter what their rank is, or what their job is, or why they’re here or there; first and foremost, they’re a person – and you need to make sure they feel that.’”

While Airmen gather at the cafe for many reasons, many of them leave with the same feeling of care, belonging and purpose.

“Very often, the best way to help yourself is to help others,” said Bernier. “The communities that dedicate themselves to helping others are almost always the most welcoming and wholesome groups of people, and by helping them, and helping others, you will find that you’ve somehow allowed yourself to be helped along the way.”

Ann and Joe’s commitment to building a safe space for young Airmen is evident in the work they do every day.

“The whipped cream that goes onto the drinks is actually part of the mission,” said Ann. “A lot of times Airmen come here with low expectations for a free drink, so we try to deliver the best-looking product possible, to show these Airmen that they are worth it. We always aim for the whipped cream to be two inches high. We like to say ‘there’s love in the whipped cream,’ because when I see the Airmen’s faces when they receive this beautiful drink, I know what we are doing is impactful.”