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When Johnnie Marches Home...

By Keith Pandolfi After a grueling one-year tour of duty in Iraq and Kuwait, Michelle Sipos is ready to make some changes in her life. "I'd kind of like to settle down now and have some kids," says Sipos, a truck driver in the Army National Guard. "And I definitely need to be my own boss."

Family life will have to wait until her husband, Brian Freeman, an Army specialist, returns from Germany in February. But Sipos is getting a head start on entrepreneurial life. She recently completed a 12-week small-business education program through the National Veterans Development Corp., a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va., that provides advice and financial assistance for veterans interested in starting their own businesses.

SWELLING THE RANKS. Sipos' goal is to open a retail store specializing in running shoes and accessories near her Long Beach (N.Y.) home -- a plan she hatched in the deserts of Iraq. "You have a whole year of deployment just thinking about how you want to shape your life when you get back," she says. "You get empowered over there."

The small-business ranks may soon be swelling. According to current Pentagon policy, members of the National Guard and Reserve cannot serve on active duty for more than a total of 24 months. So as the conflict in Iraq stretches into its third year in March, thousands of troops will begin coming home for good over the next several months. And what potentially spells trouble for the war effort could be a boon to entrepreneurship.

Observers expect a significant percentage of those returning from the Middle East will join the nation's 4 million veterans who already run their own companies. A study released by the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy in November, 2004, found that 22% of veterans start or purchase a business, or plan to do so, when they leave the armed services. The National Guard and Reserve now account for roughly 40% of the 150,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.

NATURAL LEADERS. Veterans and those who counsel them say the military tends to draw people with natural leadership ability, and their time there cultivates skills essential to entrepreneurship and the business world. And organizations that help members of the military launch or maintain their own businesses are stepping up their outreach efforts.

"This is the largest deployment of reservists and guardspeople since World War II," says Bill Morland, a project coordinator with the Orange County (Calif.) chapter of the Senior Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), which offers counseling to small-business owners, including those in the California National Guard and Reserve. "We need to kick the publicity up." Morland estimates that his region alone is already home to 1,800 veteran would-be entrepreneurs.

Veterans list obtaining financing and access to useful small-business programs among their chief concerns as entrepreneurs, according to the SBA study.

PLETHORA OF RESOURCES. Because of anticipated demand, SCORE has started sending representatives to Chamber of Commerce meetings and reaching out to the California National Guard. "We also have a designated person who deals with veterans organizations to help get the word out," Morland says.

Resources have continued to grow, and dozens of services are now available to help veterans with an entrepreneurial bent learn the basics of starting and running their own outfits. Through Veterans Corp., Sipos says she learned how to craft a basic business plan, market her business, and raise capital. She also received $650 toward a new computer and discounted tuition for the program.

Business assistance is offered as well by the Veterans Business Network, the Center for Veterans Enterprise, the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, and more than 1,000 Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) located across the country. During the first six months of 2004, Pennsylvania's 16 SBDCs alone provided consulting services to 466 veterans -- 12% of the total number of individuals consulted.

Joe Sobota, an assistant advocate for the SBA's Office of Advocacy, estimates there will be about 100,000 counseling sessions available to veterans this year just by SBDC and SCORE chapters alone. "The demand is out there," he said. "We know there is."

PREPARING FOR DEPLOYMENT. Along with aiding veterans in starting their own companies, these organizations also help National Guard and Reserve members who already have their own businesses prepare for what might happen if they're ever deployed -- a service that could become even more relevant as the Pentagon considers changes to its deployment policies.

"Employers are required to hold a job open by law," SCORE's Morland says. "But for small-business owners, [their outfits] can just fail, and they come back home without a business. We're gearing up to help them."

Rob Matheson, a National Guard member and dentist with a private practice in Upland, Calif., first met a SCORE representative at a local Chamber of Commerce meeting and eventually began working with him on how to prepare for a potential deployment. "There are a lot of legal issues that can both aid us and hurt us, and he was proficient in informing me about them," Matheson says. Since his business is less than two years old, Matheson was concerned it wouldn't be strong enough to survive if he were deployed.

RESOURCEFUL BUNCH. Using SCORE's guidance to explore contingency plans, he has become a bit more confident that his company would endure if he were deployed overseas. "I would definitely have to put the practice on hiatus," Matheson says. "It would be tough, but I would survive."

Organizations such as SCORE and Veterans Corp. also assist those left in charge of businesses while the primary owner is deployed. "Sometimes, the business owner leaves the operation of the business to a wife, husband, or partner," Morland says. "So we also want to be able to mentor and provide resources to whoever is left in charge."

Though some veterans have difficulty tracking down the assistance they need to start their own company, Sipos says they're a persistent and resourceful group by nature - and by training. "In the military, you realize that sometimes you have to go through a lot of processes to find out about things," she says. "But if you're an entrepreneur, you will look for it and find it." For many, it's a whole new mission. Pandolfi is a freelance writer based in New York

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