When you’re jumping from a plane, there’s no stopping in the open doorway to reflect. You follow the soldier in front of you. They jump, then you jump. A second after that, the soldier behind you jumps. The planeload of paratroopers plummets toward earth, opening the lifesaving parachutes at a specific point—a mere 500 feet from the ground in a combat scenario. Higher up if there’s no one shooting at you, because the closer you are to landing when you open your chute, the less time you are a slowly drifting target.

Charles McKellar, a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne division, had completed nearly 50 jumps in his career without incident. Then, on a routine jump simulating combat conditions, he was involved in what the Army called a “high-altitude entanglement”: he was sucked out of the aircraft with another paratrooper. McKellar remembers seeing the tail of the plane rushing toward him, knowing he was probably going to die, praying that he would be spared. His parachute collapsed and he was knocked unconscious.

The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities Class of 2010
The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities Class of 2010 (view more photos from EBV 2010)

“I hit the earth and the next thing I remember was some beautiful woman looking at me saying, “Can you hear me now?'” he chuckles as he recounts his brush with death.

Along with the personal motto, “Everyday you wake up is a good day,” the incident left him with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Frequently caused by bomb blasts, TBIs can affect thinking, sensation, movement, language, and emotions. Like hundreds of thousands of other U.S. soldiers, McKellar will struggle with the effects of this injury, perhaps for the rest of his life. The extent of his wound led to medical discharge from the Army, ending his eight-year career in the military.

Today, he works at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, teaching IT classes to wounded warriors. While McKellar is fortunate to have a job, many soldiers with TBIs, and the more common and similarly disruptive post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), find traditional employment extremely challenging. A down economy and a scarcity of job opportunities only add to the difficulty.

Entrepreneurship offers these self-sacrificing men and women an opportunity to work on their own terms. Although small business ownership is challenging and risky, the rewards can be great.

Those potential rewards brought McKellar to the A&M campus last month. He was one of 18 participants in the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities program, which offers free training in small business ownership and operation to vets wounded in service after 9/11.

Fed through the fire hose

Piloted by the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University four years ago, the program is now offered in consortium with Mays and four other schools across the nation. It provides participants with the practical skills necessary to make a new venture a success, and an exceptional support network that will be vital as they launch their new ideas.

Participants came from all branches of the military and all parts of the country. With a variety of experiences and ideas, the common theme among the soldiers was a desire to make a difference—in their own lives, in the lives of other veterans, in their communities—through their proposed business ventures.

During their week on campus, three of this year’s EBV participants recorded daily video updates. (see more video blogs)

Some participants already had a business in operation at the time of the program and were able to apply EBV course materials directly to improve their ventures, from private security to clothing design.

For others, the week helped them to shape an idea and turn it into a concrete plan of action.

Stephanie Bowers was one such participant. An Army medic, sergeant Bowers doesn’t look like a woman who has seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan. She’s petite and perpetually smiling, with a pleasant southern drawl that gives her away as a native of Tennessee. She currently works at a VA hospital, caring for veterans in much the same way as she did when she was in the military. Her business idea was born out of her experiences as a caregiver and a wounded soldier.

“When I came [to A&M], I knew I wanted to create a patient advocacy business in my hometown,” she said. Over the course of the three-week online training and nine-day residency period on campus, Bowers learned about financial planning, accounting basics, management, intellectual property laws, marketing, personal selling, and other topics. “We were fed through the fire hose,” she says, commenting that it felt like two semesters of business school crammed into one short period.

More important than any one concept mastered during the experience, Bowers says EBV has given her the confidence she needed to be successful. “The biggest thing that I didn’t have when I came that I have now…is the confidence to actually take that leap of faith to start the business.”

Striving for greatness

Likewise, McKellar says the information provided through the EBV program has empowered him. “This program has given me energy beyond my wildest dreams. I know that my business idea will soon become a business reality,” he says. “I know this. I can feel it in my gut. I am so confident about what I’m doing right now.” Currently, he operates a computer repair and web design business in addition to his duties at Fort Bragg. In the near future, he plans to launch a venture called Winners Information Technology Training and Consulting, which will provide IT training and job skills to diverse demographics, from at-risk youth, to injured soldiers, to the elderly.

The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities Class of 2010
“This program has given me energy beyond my wildest dreams,” said EBV participant Charles McKellar. “I know that my business idea will soon become a business reality,”

A large guy, McKellar might look intimidating if not for his kind eyes and the jokes and smiles constantly on his lips. Quick with a word of heartfelt encouragement for anyone in need, it is entirely appropriate that his venture is people-focused. He is especially passionate about helping at-risk youth. “I am going to save somebody’s life with education and job stabilization,” he says. “I want to train them because some of them are underprivileged and live in rural or dangerous environments. They have given up on hope. I want to teach them to dream big and to strive for greatness!”

McKellar will lead by example. “You can’t get anywhere by staying where you are. You’ve got to get up and you’ve got to do something. I’m so glad to be [at EBV] because [the instructors] have encouraged me to get up and do something,” he says.

You can see more about McKellar, Bowers, and one other participant, Andrea Carlton, by watching video blogs created during their residency week at A&M.

Thanks to the generous support of corporate sponsors and private individuals, the entire program—including tuition, travel, and accommodations—is offered at no cost to the veterans. This year, PepsiCo joined the program as a corporate sponsor, giving $1.5 million to EBV nationwide. To donate to the Mays EBV program, visit the Texas A&M Foundation.

Contact the Mays EBV Program Director, Richard Lester, for more information at rlester@mays.tamu.edu or (979) 862-7091.