Veterans Day 2010: Disabled Military Veterans Learn Entrepreneurship Skills

PHOTO: Marine John Raftery, left, started his own construction business with the help of an entrepreneurship program at Syracuse University.
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A training program is helping to turn battle-scarred American heroes into self-supporting entrepreneurs.

As a proud Marine, John Raftery took part in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He returned home physically intact but psychologically damaged.

"It was a very dark period in my life," Raftery recalled.

Suffering from PTSD and working as an assistant accountant in Dallas, Raftery found it hard to adjust from the battlefield.

"I think the difficult thing was how do I take military experience and transfer that experience into the corporate world," he said.

Raftery heard about a business program at Syracuse University for people like himself -- disabled veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He applied and was accepted.

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"It was just very exciting to me, the thought of entrepreneurship," Raftery said.

The program is called the Entrepreneurship Boot Camp for Veterans With Disabilities, or EBV, and it's the brainchild of Mike Haynie, a former Air Force officer who's now a business professor at Syracuse University.

EBV's aim is to teach disabled veterans not how to get a job, but how to start their own small businesses.

"A bomb blast or a gunshot has changed their lives forever, so it becomes a challenge for them to assume that traditional 9-to-5 job," Haynie said. "If they can craft a vocation for themselves through self-employment, they can craft that vocation in a way that allows them to accommodate some of those challenges."

More than 300 wounded veterans have been through the EBV program, and about half have their own businesses up and running. Some of the veterans are restaurant owners, and there's at least one filmmaker.

Raftery now owns a construction company that's on track to bring in $3 million a year.

"There's still a piece of you that is missing when you leave service," Raftery said. "Entrepreneurship is the final piece for me in making the 100 percent transition."

Program Offers Help to Military Caretakers

The EBV program recently was expanded to family members who are caring for severely injured vets. The first class of 19 such students started this week, and among them was Nelida Bagley, whose son, Jose Poqueno, was severely brain damaged by a grenade in Iraq.

"He requires 24/7 total care," Bagley said. "Bathing, cleaning -- everything."

Five years ago, Bagley quit her job in New Hampshire and moved to Florida to take care of her son around the clock.

"We went through all our savings," Bagley said. "We went through everything to be able to be by his side."

Light at the End of the Tunnel

At Syracuse, she's hoping to learn how to start some kind of business she can run from her home so that she can continue to care for him. Already, Bagley said, the future seems brighter than it has in years.

"This program gives me the opportunity to have an outlook at the future and say there is a light at the end of that tunnel," she said.

Click here to visit the website for the "Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans With Disabilities" program.

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