It happens after every war. Society has no idea of how to reward or resettle warriors who have fought for it. Back in 1588 good Queen Elizabeth found her treasury bare and unable to pay the sailors who had saved England from the Spanish Armada. While funds were sought, the sailors were ordered to remain on their ships, anchored in the Thames River. After several months many of these sailors starved to death. The age old problem remains.
Today many returning veterans of the Iraq war are coming home to their own private fiscal devastation. For this latest conflict, unprecedented numbers of National Guard and members of the Navy and Army Reserve have been called to serve for unprecedented lengths of time. For the small business owner – from plumber to physician – this year-and-a-half hiatus abroad frequently spells the end of everything he has built up.
"That’s the way it is," says Captain Jerry Rovner, retired Navy reservist and business consultant. "State workers get both their own salary and Reservist pay when called up. Salaried workers in major private companies can count on having their jobs held open for them. But the small business-owning veteran has no protection and can’t even collect unemployment."
Rovner, CEO of Rapid Response Computing Service in Robbinsville (www.rapidresponsecs.com), as well as his own business consulting service, sees the best help coming from the vets themselves. His solutions is to organize veterans to build a veterans’ small business incubator and training center. With 500,000 veterans in the Garden State – 24,000 in Mercer and 50,000 in Middlesex – he has a large group of potential helper, but can he get the funding?
Hamilton electrician Bob Griffith is one business-owning Iraq veteran whose business has suffered as a result of his absence. And this despite the fact that he thought he had taken every precaution.
In early 2004, his business, An-Mar Electric had finally climbed to the point where, as he puts it, "we were struggling, but successful." Business prospects looked good. The ink was black.
Then, at age 56, Griffith, a member of the Army National Guard, was called up. This was not the first time that he had answered his country’s call. At age 17, in l965, Griffith had joined the Navy. "I actually wanted to join the Marines, but the recruiter told me come back in a year with more maturity," he recalls. "But the Navy recruiter across the hall had no such scruples." In less than two years, Griffith was cruising up the Perfume River in Vietnam, scanning the shore for the enemy, his fists clenching the small boat’s 50 caliber machine gun.
For the Iraq conflict, however, the military sought neither Griffith’s combat nor electrical expertise. In l972 Griffith had taken a job at Trenton State Prison as a corrections officer, serving on a tactical squad. "It was days of boredom punctuated by times of sheer terror," he says. "Trenton was the toughest prison in the state and that was the time of prison riots nationwide." It was this skill that the Army sought to employ in its prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In November of 2003 Griffith received notification that he might be called up. Instantly he began a departure plan. He hired an electrician from Local 269 to take over his work, with an option to get more union workers as needed. Griffith’s wife, Marietta, and his youngest son, Brian, were to handle the business end. It seemed like a solid plan. In March, 2004, Griffith received his orders and shipped out to Guantanamo.
Griffith’s own take on the Guantanamo situation differs from many media reports. "We were always pussyfooting around. We had to always call them `detainees’ – never terrorists," he says. Abuse, he says was more received, rather than given, by the guards. "They would throw feces at us, grab our arms when we handed them a food tray, and slam our heads into the bars. Had this happened at Trenton State, we would have, well, shown that inmate the error of his ways. Here we could not." (See the Sunday, September 17 New York Times magazine for an in-depth examination of the grim realities facing the Guantanamo guard force.)
Undaunted by his surroundings, Griffith, a staunch member of the West Jersey Scottish-American Society, organized a gala Robert Burns Night. He even got stateside musicians to help celebrate Scotland’s favorite bard.
Meanwhile, back in Hamilton, An-Mar was spiraling down. Brian Griffith, age 30, was called up and sent to Kuwait. Jobs could not be finished, customers withheld payment. In July Marietta Griffith sent her husband a letter saying that the business had folded. When Griffith returned home 12 months later An-Mar was $100,000 in debt and he turned to his personal credit cards to stave off creditors.
Griffith was neither shocked nor dismayed to receive the call to serve in Guantanamo. "I"m a patriot," he says, "and I hate to be on the sidelines." What’s more, he knows that, even at age 58, he could be called up again. He puts his chances at 50-50.
Griffith plans to stay in the National Guard until he reaches full retirement age, which is 60. He will then receive a pension of about $500 a month. In the meantime he is required to spend one weekend a month in training, for which, at his current rank of staff sergeant, he is paid $400 a month. He also must report to camp two weeks each year and complete Army schools as required by his unit. He is eligible to participate in a health insurance plan, but does not do so. He does, however, take advantage of the Guard’s dental plan. Tuition reimbursement plans are also available to him.
Rovner had experienced the same business destruction as Griffith. A life-long executive for several major companies, he had been human resource director for Squibb, vice president of marketing for Fedders, and warehouse supervisor for L’Oreal/Lancome. When the attacks of September 11 occurred, Rovner was COO of Rail Head CFS, a Bayonne-based company he founded. The company integrated rail, sea, and trucking operations for over 50,000 containers annually.
Militarily, Rovner’s career was equally illustrious. After five years of active duty, including tours in Vietnam, he had spent another 24 years at various positions in the Navy Reserve and had received the Legion of Honor. A deep diving and salvage officer, he lead the first unit to document the Panama Canal’s condition before it was turned over to Panama in l994. In the 1980s and early-1990s he worked on boosting the strength of the Navy militia with Wayne Girardet, an FBI agent and former Air Force pilot who lives in Cranbury.
Shortly after 9/11, 53-year-old Rovner was called to Fort Dix to provide direction for FEMA and for Reserve and National Guard teams in the field. Afterwards, he returned to Rail Head CFS, but his absence, coupled with the halt in shipping that occurred after the terrorist attacks has left the firm in a shambles. Salvaging what he could, he came down to Robbinsville to start again.
Old soldiers, Rovner and his fellows naturally sought out each other. He teamed up with fellow veteran Terry Ikey and founded Rapid Response Computer Service. Ikey had served in Somalia in l993. They hired a receptionist, the wife of a disabled vet with a broken back and three children to support. Later, when Griffith mustered out, Rovner brought him into his offices on Route 33.
Together under one roof, these veterans tried to establish their companies. Meanwhile, Rovner, who had launched a business consulting firm on the side, provided management and advice to the crew. But the battle was uphill. He spent days traipsing around to government agencies telling of his group’s skills and asking where they might be of use. Everyone was very polite and verbally supportive. But it was all lip service and no bids.
Rovner holds of a stack of various colored pages with fine type, three quarters of an inch thick. "This is just to bid on one Mercer County job," he says, "and they want five copies of each page. No small business can afford to fill out this kind of paperwork." So the job will be ceded to a large firm.
Further, he claims, veteran businesses almost invariably fall to the bottom of the subcontracting list. The major private contractor knows he must hire a certain number of black, minority, and women employees and subcontractors to get his bid considered. Veteran-owned companies are not included in that legal mandate.
Granted, bill HR3082, passed into law in July, 2005, states that 9 percent of all procurement contracts involving the Veterans Administration go to vet-owned or disabled-vet-connected companies. But Veterans Administration procurement is a minuscule portion of government contracts and pales in significance next to the work that private companies must place with minority vendors.
Rovner soon learned that there were many services for veterans and many services for the small business person. But there existed nothing for the returning "vetrepreneur" with his unique set" of problems. What others might see as unfortunate, Rovner saw as a marketing niche.
Working on recruiting the Mercer County Office of Economic Opportunity, the College of New Jersey Small Business Development Center, Mercer Veterans Services, Trenton Business and Technology Center, and the Mercer Chamber, he wants to form a Veterans Small Business Incubator and Training Center (VSBITC) to guide returning veteran in picking up the pieces of an old business or in starting a new one. This would be only the second such enterprise in the country.
As we finish talking, Rovner rises with a wince and moves away with a slight limp. The injury, earned on a diving exercise in the Navy, has forced him to give up his beloved basketball games. His final insult as a vet is a recent change in the law that subtracts his disability check from his Navy pension. As I recount the story of Queen Elizabeth’s bare treasury, he laughs. "Oh well," he says. "Thank heavens I wasn’t diving for England against the Armada."
Veterans Small Business Incubator & Training Center, 2313 Route 33, Robbinsville; 609-945-2389; firstname.lastname@example.org.
An-Mar Electrical, 2313 Route 33, Robbinsville; 609-223-3960.