The War Back Home

Soldier-entrepreneurs try to stay afloat

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In 2005, National Guardsman Mark Aldrich was called up to fight in Kuwait and Iraq with the Army's 42nd Infantry Division. Concerned that Front Media Group, his four-person, Byfield (Mass.) company, would stumble in his absence, Aldrich sold his house and moved his wife and two children into a smaller townhouse. He brought in a partner to manage his $200,000 business, which produces a directory for the gaming industry, and drew up new articles of incorporation.

It was uncharted territory for the 36-year-old, who bemoans the lack of guidance for making critical business decisions at such a stressful time. "You are not going to find an attorney experienced in any of this," says Aldrich. "They will write a general agreement, but for a military leave from a business, there is no real precedent."

About 55,000 reservists and National Guard members are self-employed, and about twice that number work for small businesses, according to a May, 2005, Congressional Budget Office report. Their deployments create a host of problems for their companies, including loss of revenue, production troubles, and even permanent shutdowns. With President Bush's call to send an additional 21,000 troops into combat, and with many soldiers facing multiple deployments, those who are also entrepreneurs will likely find their difficulties getting worse.

Government agencies such as the Veterans Affairs Dept. and the Small Business Administration offer some assistance, including disaster recovery loans and access to counselors. But many reservists and their advocates say returning soldiers are unaware that help is available and that the current approach is too scattershot. "No one is there to help you figure out how to maintain your business when you are gone and to mentor you," says Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a nonprofit advocacy group in New York. "It is up to the

`ONE-STOP SHOP'

Scott Denniston, director of the office of small business and the center for veterans enterprise for the Veterans Administration, says government agencies recognize that many soldiers are not getting the help they need. He says the SBA is working with the Defense Dept. to streamline the process of getting information to soldiers before they get deployed rather than when they get back. And at its biennial meeting in March, the American Legion discussed the need for better business planning help for soldiers.

Tracy Reep, who lost an eye and two fingers while serving in Iraq as a member of the Texas Army National Guard, notes that the military's Soldier Readiness Processing program already tries to prepare soldiers to leave their families and civilian life. He says a similar program for entrepreneurs, addressing issues such as managing a business and maintaining cash flow during an absence, would have better prepared him to attempt to rev up his recruiting business after he returned.

Jim Mumma, a marine helicopter pilot who has served two tours of duty in Iraq and owns the five-person, $300,000 Engraver's Gallery in San Diego, says: "There should be some sort of one-stop shop 60 to 90 days before deploying, and at some point during the deployment, and then when you've returned, to make sure you are hitting all the right wickets."

Some returning soldiers, such as Shawn Augustson, have had to take jobs at other companies while attempting to revive their own businesses. When Augustson returned from a 15-month tour in Iraq with the U.S. Army's 463rd Engineer Battalion in 2004, he found that clients of his $40,000 graphics and Web design company had taken their business elsewhere and responded coolly to his calls. Augustson says some promised to let him know if something came up, but never did. Now he's working as a Web designer for another company. "What got to me was that I hear so many things about big companies holding jobs for their employees who get deployed, but there's nothing for those of us who own our own businesses," he says. Complicating matters, Augustson was called up for additional military training as a signal support specialist just prior to press time.

Jeff Linscott says he got lucky. When he was called up in 2002, Linscott, now a retired major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, was running JL Aviation, his Portland (Ore.) helicopter service. The five-employee company had revenues of $767,000 when Linscott left for Gulfport, Miss. He returned from his eight-month tour to find sales had fallen to $35,000, yet he still owed creditors $40,000 a month. Two of his three helicopters had been grounded. "You leave a viable, growing business that you've put your heart and soul in and you come back from active duty and you have to rebuild," says Linscott. He saw a spot on CNN about Military Reservist Economic Injury & Disaster Loans, and after 16 months, his application was approved and he received $472,000. Today, his business is in the black, with 2006 revenues of $1.4 million.

CLUELESS CLIENTS

Returning soldiers also have to contend with a sometimes rocky readjustment to life as civilian entrepreneurs. Aldrich says it took him six months to acclimate after nearly two years in a high-stress environment, watching people getting killed by bombs in convoys and hearing missiles explode. "You are not emotionally attached to any of the situations," says Aldrich about business life. Suddenly, typos in Yellow Pages advertisements seemed less important. "It is a level of detachment from the situation, that this is not life or death and I don't care."

It may be especially difficult for returning soldiers to find a sympathetic ear during this war: The IAVA's Rieckhoff says that only 1% of Americans have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, compared with 10% to 12% who saw action during World War II. "It is harder to find someone in your family or your client list or your bank who knows what [active duty] means," he says.

Aldrich focused on administrative tasks and rebuilding databases until he felt comfortable working with clients. "If you are constantly preoccupied with disturbing thoughts, you can't continue to run a good business," says Shad Meshad, president of the Los Angeles nonprofit National Veterans Foundation. He estimates more than 20% of returning reservists may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or its cousin, Combat Stress Injury.

Despite the undeniable challenges, some soldiers find that their experience has helped them better manage their business. "You have a new appreciation for the opportunities available to you," says Major Rob Palmer, a spokesman for the National Committee for Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve, based in Arlington, Va. Many draft more concrete contingency plans. Others go in new directions. While convalescing in 2005, Reep decided to start Devoss, an online office supply company that employs injured veterans and their families. Today, the company has six employees and about $2.5 million in annual sales. At Engraver's Gallery, Mumma is expanding his business, which prints awards certificates, signs, and other engraved materials. He says he now sees his company as a wealth-generating tool that can provide for his family in his absence. The one-day-at-a-time attitude he had before the war has been replaced by a more intense focus, and he plans to update the company's technology and acquire competitors. "You look at life differently," says Mumma. "I realize the business is, after my family, my most important thing."

By Jeremy Quittner

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