It was the Fourth of July, 2018, and the United States Navy was performing the Rim of the Pacific Exercise. Fireworks were exploding in the air, and Navy veteran Desiree Cortés, working at Tin Hut BBQ in Honolulu, Hawaii, was having a difficult time coping with the heavy cacophony.
Cortés had informed her boss, owner and Army veteran Frank Diaz, ahead of time that it might be a difficult day for her. Both had experienced post-traumatic stress, and Diaz could empathize with her.
“You’re my battle buddy today. We’re going to go through this together,” Diaz told her.
Diaz quickly noticed that Cortés’ mind was elsewhere, and her eyes were occasionally flickering. He also noticed that she kept counting the cash over and over again. He asked her what was going on, and she told him she didn’t know, but she couldn’t count.
Diaz told Cortés to focus on him and the instructions he was going to give. He told her to open up all of the slots in the money tray in front of her, and she did.
“That was task one complete. The human brain, it reacts wonderfully when you complete a task—even small tasks,” Diaz explained.
Diaz asked her to separate the cash into denominations. He then asked her to count the 20s, and write down the total. She then counted the other denominations one by one. Breaking down the mission into smaller tasks allowed Cortés’ mind to slow down and focus.
While Cortés was on her way home, Diaz told her to call him once she reached different checkpoints. She called him at each checkpoint, and when she got home, the two spoke for a little longer. After their conversation, she was able to lay down and rest.
“Simply breaking the big task down [into] little tasks and having a victory is how we overcame that particular situation,” Diaz recalled.
BBQ for Veterans
Diaz, 59, opened Tin Hut BBQ in July 2012. The food truck and catering business employs veterans, and serves at both public locations and the Army barracks in Honolulu daily. For Diaz, the business combines his passion for barbecue with his desire to help veterans, like Cortés, who are struggling to adjust to civilian life.
In 2015, Diaz tried to help a fellow veteran open his own food truck, but tragically he took his own life before they could open. At the time, Diaz had been employing veterans already, but his friend’s passing motivated him to do more.
“I made a promise to myself that if I ever encountered a veteran that [needed] help in any way, I would go out of my way to help them in every way I possibly [could],” Diaz said.
At Tin Hut BBQ, he hires veterans on the spot, no questions asked. In addition to providing employment, Diaz tries to instill the values of honesty, integrity, dependability, reliability, and trustworthiness in his employees. He mentors all of them, nurturing their particular interests and skills.
He also takes some of them into his own house if they need a place to stay, and allows them to use his vans to get to and from work until they save up enough money to purchase a car of their own.
Desiree Cortés, who has worked with Diaz for a year and nine months, is just one of the over 65 veterans or family members of veterans Diaz has hired since Tin Hut BBQ’s opening.
When Cortés was medically retired from the Navy after six years of service, she struggled to adjust to civilian life. She would experience manic mood swings and anger.
“I was really struggling with severe symptoms of PTSD, and that really caused me to disassociate from a lot of people,” Cortés said.
She found herself sleeping for long periods of time, using alcohol and drugs to cope with her symptoms, and couch surfing or sleeping in her car.
After she told Diaz about her situation via text message, he hired her within minutes. Two days later, she was working as a cashier. Now, she manages one of the business’s three trucks.
After starting at Tin Hut BBQ, she now has a steady income and can afford to rent her own home. She’s also discovered that she’s calmer and more collected.
Life in the Army
Diaz brings experience from decades of military service, as well as his personal struggles, to his work.
His father was in the Army, and was stationed at different bases on the East Coast. Diaz thus spent a lot of time moving around when he was growing up, which made it more difficult to make friends, but he also had the opportunity to travel all over the world, to countries like Panama, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon.
As he grew older, Diaz gained a sense of duty and admired his father’s service. He also wanted to be disciplined and responsible for his family, and to continue to travel. In 1981, at age 21, he enlisted in the Army.
During his 15 years of service, Diaz was deployed to countries in the Middle East, Central America, and South America, and worked with special operations units. He retired in 1995, returning to the United States to work as a civilian employee for the Department of Defense.
Like many veterans, he faced his own struggles upon coming home. He contended with PTSD, but at the time the condition wasn’t well understood. He was frequently hypervigilant and was uncomfortable being the passenger in a vehicle. He had also sustained a traumatic brain injury while in the Army.
Diaz eventually sought help from a psychologist and psychiatrist, and was able to work through his struggles.
Brought Together by Barbecue
Growing up with his father in the Army, wherever they were in the world, Diaz vividly remembers the large barbecue feasts that brought everyone together.
His father would frequently invite his fellow soldiers over for barbecue parties. One guest in particular would go out hunting and bring back wild pigs, which they roasted over a spit for hours.
“It was a good way to bring people together,” Diaz said. He learned from his father that the best way to break a sad atmosphere was to have a celebration where people could come together. Diaz continued this tradition throughout his own service, and beyond.
“I had the same heart, where I didn’t want any of my soldiers that were away from home to go without a home-cooked meal,” he said.
In 2007, when Diaz was working on a base in Washington state for the Department of Defense, he couldn’t find any good barbecue despite his best efforts, and remembered the days of mobile kitchen trailers from his deployments. The idea of a barbecue food truck began to take shape.
In 2008, he received an offer to move to Hawaii that he felt like he couldn’t pass up. While working there as an antiterrorism specialist, he started to develop his business concept. He bought a smoker, and on a deployment to Afghanistan, practiced cooking barbecue for the soldiers with him, who helped him hone his craft.
To create his menu, Diaz drew inspiration from travels all over the country. He wanted to have an eclectic menu that featured the best barbecue from every region of the United States. He discovered Texas was the place for brisket, Carolina was the spot for pulled pork, and Kansas City was where ribs were king.
He studied under some of the best pitmasters in the country and learned their styles and secret methods to bring back to Hawaii.
Now, Tin Hut BBQ has three trucks, and Diaz plans on expanding to other locations in the United States. Not only has Diaz employed numerous veterans, but he also continues to give back to the military community, particularly during the holiday season.
This Thanksgiving, Tin Hut BBQ fed 250 military families and veterans. On Christmas Day, they will feed active-duty soldiers who can’t make it home for the holidays.
“It’s a thank you for their service, for serving on days that they can’t be with their own families. I remember those days,” Diaz said.