A business boot camp for disabled vets
By William Kates - The Associated Press
Posted : Monday Aug 27, 2007 6:54:50 EDT

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Before enlisting, Christina Hill delivered the mail. In the Army, she was a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic.

After a 127mm rocket explosion in Iraq left her with shrapnel wounds, bone loss in her right arm, nerve damage in her leg left and post-traumatic stress disorder, neither of those careers was still open to her. Or much else.

“If an employer sees you have a disability, they believe your capabilities are minimized,” said Hill, 24, of Royal Oak, Mich.

“I don’t want a job like that. I don’t see myself having set limits, so I figure I should work for myself,” said Hill, who served four years in the Army — including a 15-month tour in Iraq — before leaving as a sergeant last November.

So it’s back to basic training for Hill and 19 other disabled vets in the inaugural “Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities,” a training program at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University for veterans disabled during their service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is what we need. We don’t need drugs and stuff,” said former Marine Cpl. Justin Bajema, 26, of Grand Rapids, Mich., who suffered shrapnel wounds in both legs from a roadside bomb explosion and has PTSD.

“This kind of program can help us get that confidence back that we lost. One of the biggest things for me was when I got injured, it stole my confidence. It was a total setback,” said Bajema, who was deployed to Iraq twice during his service from 2001 to 2005. “I have buddies doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing. They are having a hard time adjusting. They’re not doing anything with their lives. For me, this is like searching for meaning, trying to figure life back out again.”

The participants, who range in age from their 20s to their 50s and represent all four services, have immersed themselves in a nine-day residency program designed to teach them how to become business owners. The veterans come from 14 states and Puerto Rico. Syracuse is offering the program free, aided by $300,000 in donations, about 85 percent from individuals, said Mike Haynie, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship who is coordinating the program.

Through workshops and lessons from prominent entrepreneurship faculty, boot camp participants will learn how to write business plans, raise capital and attract customers. They’ll also determine what type of marketing is most effective for their business model, whether they need employees, and how to take their business venture to the next level, said Haynie, a former Air Force major who spent 14 years in the service. He taught business for six years at the Air Force Academy before joining Syracuse’s faculty last fall.

Although there will be some discussion of issues unique to disability and public benefits programs, “this program is not about being disabled,” Haynie said.

Because of improvements in body armor and medical technological advances, an unprecedented number of Americans — about 27,000 — is surviving war wounds but returning home disabled, Haynie said.

For the veteran returning with a disability, the traditional ways to “climb the economic ladder” are often closed because of their disability. These veterans also face policy and other barriers to their employment, he said.

Roadblocks to economic productivity for veterans with disabilities affect not only workers but their communities, as well, Haynie said. Notably, many of these veterans are young adults in their early to mid-20s who come from small towns with less than 5,000 inhabitants.

“Entrepreneurship is a means through which veterans with disabilities can engage the economic engine of their community,” Haynie said. “Statistics show that people with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be self-employed as the general population. Throughout history, entrepreneurship has been a way for individuals who are disadvantaged in some way, whether it be socially, economically or physically, to overcome that disadvantage.”

The Whitman School will run two boot camps a year, but Haynie is hoping that other schools will follow Syracuse’s lead.

To participate, vets filled out applications that included essays and recommendations as if they were applying to college.

The program involved two phases. Before arriving in Syracuse, students completed a two-week self-study curriculum that included online discussions as they developed their business concepts.

Hill plans to start an automotive business that caters to people who are particular about the maintenance and upkeep of their vehicles. Bajema has started a company that refurbishes houses for people with disabilities.

Jim Wilkes, 31, of Potsdam, is a retired Army captain. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry and education and a master’s degree in information communication technology and human performance technology. But said he has been unable to find a job teaching because he suffers from PTSD.

Discouraged, he founded Angel Trax Inc., a nonprofit agency that helps returning veterans and their families with readjustment services and provides educational outreach to the community. He said he would like to spin off some for-profit businesses.

“This gives us a chance to overcome,” Wilkes said. “And a chance to give back to our communities. By someone donating money and getting involved in the program, helping us out, we will help out others, and hopefully inspire not just veterans but other people with disabilities.”