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Vets offer vets advice on startups

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When Justen Garrity left the Army for the business world, his five years as an officer, experienced in combat, engineering and leadership, mattered little to prospective employers.

"The deck is stacked against the military in this job market," said Garrity, 30. "Any good military person can learn any job. They are adaptive leaders, but employers don't see that as experience in marketing and management.

"In Iraq, I was in charge of an area the size of West Virginia. Back home, I could not get a job as a bank teller or a desk clerk at a hotel."

Eventually, the former Army captain and Worcester Polytechnic Institute graduate abandoned a frustrating job search and concentrated on starting his own business.

"I wanted something with a purpose, something green and socially responsible," he said.

During months of research, he learned that about two-thirds of all trash is compostible. He settled on compost production, which offered him "a lot of potential material in a wide-open field," he said.

The Aberdeen man was recently named Harford County's entrepreneur of the year. On Thursday, he shared his ideas and experience at the first Veterans Entrepreneur Day at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where he hoped his story might resonate with others.

Returning veterans face an unemployment rate of 21 percent, Sgt. Maj. James E. Ervin said, with rates for disabled veterans at 50 percent.

After a decade of war, the country now has its largest population of young veterans — those ages 22 to 30 — since the Vietnam War. The numbers continue to grow, with more than 130,000 leaving the Army this year.

"We must do our part to encourage businesses to hire these veteran soldiers who can bring exceptional training, values and experience to the job," Ervin said.

The G.I. Bill "does its part" to help these soldiers settle into civilian jobs, he said, but nationally about 720,000 remain unemployed.

Those numbers led Angela Corrieri to organize the Veterans Entrepreneur Day.

Corrieri, president of Startup Partners, a nonprofit that organizes entrepreneurial events, did not want a typical job fair, with piles of brochures but few job leads. She worked with APG's commanders on workshops tailored specifically to veterans' employment needs and entrepreneurial pursuits.

Exhibitors, speakers and contractors were veterans, many of whom, like Garrity, had launched successful businesses and value the skills and talents of fellow veterans.

They could lend their expertise, experience and encouragement, said Corrieri, who has started several businesses.

The daylong workshop on the Harford County post was to be "a reverse trade show with the not-as-usual people, who could actually improve the job situation for veterans," she said. "When jobs are scarce, search out ways to start something on your own and provide something others won't."

At the Lockwood Group, security consultants who participated in the workshop, about 60 percent are veterans, as is its president, James T. Lockwood. The company, located at the entrance to APG, supports several missions on the post.

"Our jobs take capable, disciplined people," Lockwood said. "When we do a job search, many talented veteran applicants will fall out of the sky, They know they are serving the soldiers in the field, whom they have already bonded with."

Garrirty said he started Veterans Compost with no customers, little experience in the field, a broken-down tractor and a battered truck. He picked up his first truckload of food scraps from an Ellicott City restaurant in the aftermath of a blizzard.

"They didn't expect me to show up," he said. "But if I can be on time in Iraq, I can be on time in a snowstorm."

He has since developed customers in Baltimore and several counties, hauling scraps from schools, grocery stores and hospitals and turning them into marketable compost on a 30-acre farm he leases in Aberdeen. His company employs several veterans in production and sales.

Garrity is looking at expanding at his current location, which he calls "the lab where I have learned," and adding other sites in the state.

"Two years ago, no one would take my calls," he said. "Now I get calls all the time."

Garrity's initial issues with the sluggish job market are all too common, and his success is too uncommon, officials said.

He says that whether it's a job search or a business start-up, "the intangibles learned in the Army can translate well," Garrity said. "You just have to maintain that ethos and never quit on yourself."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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