Using A Military Mindset To Create Business Start Ups


Alex Hill, right, and Justin Duhe, left, walk through the coconut groves at Coco Rico, Homestead, FL.
Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

As he transitions out of the military this fall, Justin Duhe is going into business for himself. The 28-year-old Army linguist and cyber specialist bought a five acre coconut grove in Homestead, Fla. last year – sight unseen. He knew nothing about coconuts at the time.

“I farmed before in Texas, but it was all vegetable farming, nothing like this,” Duhe said. “But I saw the potential of money, you know, that they were growing fruit and it was an investment.”

Justin Duhe bought his 5 acre coconut farm as an investment as he transitions out of the Army.

But while his new career running Coco Rico Farms will be vastly different from what he did in the Army, Duhe said his military experience will still be an asset.

Noting that he learned Farsi in 47 weeks in the Army, Duhe said he’s not afraid of challenges. And his time in the military has helped him build a business network. He wasn’t in Florida long before crossing paths with a veteran in the food business who was looking for a fresh coconut supplier. The two Army men bonded instantly.

“That’s part of the military mindset,” Duhe said. “You see each other and you pick up your battle buddy and they pick you up and you both have a vision, a goal and you keep on moving forward.”

Duhe and Alex Hill, owner of Florida Coconuts, became “business” battle buddies – not partners, but supplier and vendor.

Alex Hill, Army veteran and owner of Florida Coconuts, met Duhe online while searching for a new supply of fresh Florida coconuts.

Hill, who was in the Army Airborne, sells fresh coconut water to tourists along the beach. He said it’s not the first time he’s done business with other people who’ve been in the military.

“They have a similar work ethic as you and also uphold those similar values that you have. It’s hard to find people that have the same values outside the military,” Hill said.

Green coconuts are the best source for fresh coconut water.

Agencies target “Vetrepreneurs”

About 2.5 million veterans own businesses. According to the Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families, veterans own 13 to 15 percent of small businesses, though they’re only eight percent of the population.

Women veterans are driving the trend, according to Misty Stutsman, the director of entrepreneurship and small business at the institute.

“Women veteran entrepreneurship has grown over 300 percent since 2007, which is insane,” Stutsman said. “If you look at these entrepreneurs, not only is the start-ups great, but they’re out earning their civilian counterparts.”

To offer veterans the option of self-employment, the Institute developed several entrepreneurship programs including some that are specifically for women veterans, active-duty, and military spouses.

“Communities are investing in these programs to make sure that the next generation of entrepreneurs is supported,” Stutsman said.

Alex Hill, second from left, accepts his $7,500 second place winnings at the first Veterans Florida “Batttle of the Pitches.”

Veteran-owned startups have attracted the attention of states, universities, and other agencies.

The success record among veteran-owned startups has attracted the attention of states, universities, and other agencies.

The US Small Business Administration Veteran Business Outreach Centers offer a range of resources and training in conjunction with more than 20 partners. There are non-profit organizations like Bunker Labs, created by military veterans for veterans interested in a start-up.

Veterans Florida – a non-profit corporation created by the state of Florida – offers free classes, mentors, and an annual “Battle of the Pitches” where “vetrepreneurs” compete for cash prizes.

Florida Coconuts, Hill’s company, won second prize – $7500 – at the 2018 competition. The first prize was awarded to Axon Motor Company in Clearwater, Fla.

Hill’s prize came at a good time. A drop in the coconut supply and a seasonal dip in tourism hurt his business, so he’s pursuing a new entrepreneurial idea. He is working to design a better coconut opener.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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A VA Suicide-Reduction Program Not Reaching Vets In Need

Last year, the VA began offering mental health treatment to vets who don’t normally qualify for VA care. Since then, fewer than 200 people have used the program. Steve Walsh with the American Homefront Project reports.


Former Marine Josh Onan talks with a mental health professional at the San Diego VA. Onan is taking advantage of a year-old program that makes VA care available to people with less-than-honorable military discharges.
Katie Schoolov / KPBS

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Josh Onan was in Ramadi, Iraq in 2006 when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb.

“I remember laying down in the truck,” Onan said. “Waking up, there is dust and debris all over me, and there was an Iraqi colonel, and he’s just screaming, screaming and I don’t understand what he’s saying.”

Onan suffered a head injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. During the next year, he was in and out of trouble with military officials, mainly for small infractions, which he chalks up to the medications he was taking.  Then, while on leave, he was caught with a small amount of cocaine and was kicked out of the Marines.

Onan is one of the thousands of veterans who have other-than-honorable discharges. They don’t typically qualify for VA benefits, even though they have a high suicide rate.

To address that, the VA last summer started a new program. It allows that group of veterans to come into the VA and be treated for mental health issues at least for 90 days.

Onan is taking advantage of the program. After years of being rejected by the VA, Onan now is getting his PTSD treatment paid for by the agency, and he hopes it helps him get back to being the person he was before the injury.

I’m 32 years old now, and this guy is 20, and I look up to this guy,” he said as he looked at a old photo of himself. “I know it’s me, but I miss everything about him. Sometimes it’s hard to find this guy.”

Advocates fault VA for inadequate outreach

The VA says nationally 115 veterans have used the program, a figure that’s disappointing to veterans advocates.  They say it represents just a small fraction of the veterans who now qualify for mental health care. The VA last year estimated that more than 500,000 veterans have other-than-honorable discharges.

“It’s not possible that that’s the number of people who need help,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq vet who works with the Vietnam Veterans of America. “It’s a failure to contact them, to fully inform them, and to break the stigma.”

Vietnam Veterans of America lobbied the VA to help veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

“It’s a program that most people who are eligible for haven’t heard of, and the reason for that is the VA refused to do any outreach,” said Vietnam Veterans of America Executive Director Rick Weidman.

Weidman said there was an internal debate over whether the VA could pay to reach out to veterans who normally don’t qualify for VA care.

Illness Related To Service

Of the 115 people who took advantage of the program, 25 were in San Diego, according to the VA.

“They came in saying they had an urgent need, and they were evaluated and received care for that urgent need – whether it was a substance use disorder or suicidal thoughts,” said Dr. Neal Doran of the San Diego VA.

Earlier this year, Congress expanded the program to take in even more former service members.

Bi-partisan language inserted into a recent budget bill turned the VA program into law, making all vets with other-than-honorable discharges eligible for mental health care if their illnesses are related to their service.

The VA has not released details about how the new program will operate.

“VA is currently in the process of writing implementation regulations which will provide further guidance on expanding mental health care outreach to service members in need,” the agency said in a written statement.

The VA is also required to actively seek out the veterans who qualify.

But Onan said finding those veterans – and persuading them to seek out VA care – will still be difficult.

“I felt shunned. I still feel shunned,” Onan said.

He said treatment has been a lifesaver for him, but he fears the alienation he felt will make it difficult for other vets to seek help.

“I wouldn’t be surprised that a lot of them aren’t alive,” he said. “And the reason I say that, is without treatment and without proper care, even loved ones. I don’t think I could have done it without God and my family.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2018 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.

Thoughts On This Day: September 11th Anniversary

The Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 after the terrorist attack. Photo credit: Department of Defense

Sharing this simple, yet heartfelt message by DJ Reyes, a retired Army Colonel and Senior Mentor/Coordinator of the Florida 13th Judicial Circuit Veterans Treatment Court:

Friends: We all take pause today to not only remember what happened, but to reflect on the incredible impact the events had on our very Nation.  For many of us, it defined our military lives as we were totally immersed in fighting the Global War on Terrorism. It affected all of us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It affected our families and those we love.

It confirmed for many of us that words such as Duty, Honor, and Country are not bumper stickers – but a Code that we live and die for.

For our VTC team of mentors, judges, lawyers, VA, and community support:  We continue the Fight, but now we help many of those get whole again, and to return home with honor. I am very proud and humbled to be part of this incredible group of true Patriots right here in the greater Tampa Bay area.

We’ll celebrate and honor and remember more during our upcoming 4th Annual Heroes Gala Dinner/Awards Event next month and hope to see many of our community supporters that evening.

Does Military Service Prepare Veterans For Politics?


Congressional candidates MJ Hegar (right) and Gina Ortiz Jones speak at the LBJ Presidential Library in June. Both are military veterans seeking their first political office.
Jay Godwin / LBJ Library

Dozens of military veterans – many of them with recent service in Afghanistan and Iraq – are offering themselves as an antidote to Washington’s partisan rancor.

Veterans now make up less than 20 percent of Congress, compared with about 75 percent in the 1960s, according to the non-partisan organization, With Honor. Some high-profile candidates are trying to reverse that trend.

They’re running for Congress, often as political newcomers challenging longtime incumbents. Their campaign ads and websites play up their military experience and their service to the country.

“We’re at a record low number of veteran representatives in Congress, and it’s no coincidence that we’re at a record level of toxic, hyper-partisanship,” said Texas congressional candidate MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who is running as a Democrat in a historically Republican district that includes Fort Hood.  “I have a record of putting this country ahead of myself.”

Hegar is challenging eight-term incumbent John Carter, a non-veteran with an extensive background in military affairs. She kicked off her campaign in June with an autobiographical video that earned more than 4 million views online and raised upwards of $750,000. It puts her combat experience front and center, starting with the day she earned the Purple Heart.

“I was on a rescue mission in Afghanistan as a combat search and rescue pilot. I heard the windshield crack and realized I’d been shot,” Hegar tells viewers as the scene unfolds onscreen. “But I continued the mission and airlifted the patients out. After taking even more fire, we crashed a few miles away.”

Grounded by the attack, Hegar tried to get a different job in air support, but Pentagon policy at the time barred women from combat roles. With assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, Hegar challenged the policy in court and won.

Now, as she runs for Congress, Hegar says she put her military service at the center of her campaign not as a strategic move but as a reflection of who she is.

She argues that, while military experience isn’t the only thing that defines a candidate, veterans are uniquely equipped to deal with socially and politically divisive issues.

“I think that veterans have been thrust into a melting pot of people, have had to take on large-scale obstacles, and have been all around the world and immersed in other cultures,” she said.

At a campaign event in Austin, Democrats Debra Coe said Hegar has the kind of background that can help their party win control of Congress.

“She’s not afraid of anything” Coe said. “She’s fierce, and that’s what we need.”

Female veterans run in several states

Hegar is one of more than 400 veterans who’ve run for Congress this year, though some have already lost their primaries. As of mid-August, about 80 had won their party nominations; ten of those are women.

In addition to Hegar, they include fellow Texas Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer; Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine pilot; and New Jersey Democrat Mikie Sherrill, who served as a Navy helicopter pilot.

For former military members, it’s not always easy to transition to politics.

“You’re out there in a very nasty and polarized political environment; that’s a big change from what most of our constituents saw in the military,” said Norm Bonnyman of  Veterans Campaign , a non-partisan organization that trains veterans to run for office.

Among the challenges facing veterans: As newcomers to politics, they often have little experience raising money and may lack the political connections they need to get party support. Many also lack deep ties to a community because they moved around a lot during their years in the service.

“While they have the discipline, while they have drive, while they have the leadership traits that a lot of folks are interested in seeing in their elected officials, those barriers to entry are very high,” Bonnyman said.

Then there are the gerrymandered, less competitive districts that make it hard for anybody to beat an incumbent.

“You can run a very compelling candidate with a military biography, but you can’t move a plus 20 Republican district into the Democrats’ column with merely changing the biography of your candidate,” said Jeremy Teigen, a political scientist from Ramapo College of New Jersey who wrote the book Why Veterans Run.

Rep. John Carter (R-TX) has been serving in Congress since 2003. Though he’s not a veteran, he’s talked a lot during his campaign about his support of the military. Credit Carson Frame / American Homefront

Incumbents stress their military support

Carter, the Republican incumbent in Texas’ 31st District, has said little during his reelection campaign about the military service of Hegar, his Democratic challenger. But he’s played up his own support of the military.

Carter wrote and championed the Veterans Transplant Coverage Act, a newly-passed piece of legislation that allows veterans to receive organ transplants from non-veterans with their VA coverage. He also pushed to get additional funding for Fort Hood as part of the defense budget.

“By their very nature, soldiers and the military demand more attention, and I’m glad to give it to them,” Carter said. “My overall congressional experience has been heavily centered on veterans affairs.”

Carter has run against veterans before and never lost.

“I think we rise or fall on our accomplishments of our lives,” Carter said. “That’s generally how I run my race, whoever I’m running against. ”

During a recent appearance by Carter at an American Legion post, many voters in the heavily Republican district said they didn’t know much about Hegar, and that her veteran status was unlikely to make them vote across party lines.

“I won’t vote for a Democrat,” said American Legion member American Legion member Larry Gossett. “Their philosophies and their beliefs are nothing close to what mine are.”

The Cook Political Report in August ranked the seat “Likely Republican” in the November election.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2018 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.
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