Event gives back to veterans

Marine veteran and Texas A&M women's basketball coach Gary Blair speaks to a group of veterans during a dinner at Traditions Club Thursday, July 17, 2014. The event was part of the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities event being held this week. (Eagle Photo/ Stuart Villanueva)

When April Ames-Chase retired from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years and seven days of service, the sound of helicopters triggered her back to the time she treated wounded in a high-combat area in Iraq.

Ames-Chase served six months as a nurse in charge of several units at a surgical hospital. As helicopters delivered injured soldiers to her team of medics and nurses, she recalls, they had to be cautious not to get hit by stray mortars.

Even after her return to civilian life in San Antonio, the sound of helicopters reminded her of the wounded. Ames-Chase had to stay away from large crowds, and war movies were out of the question. She was one of the thousands of soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Now, close to six years later, Ames-Chase is aiming to start her own business to help those who suffer from PTSD by providing wellness consultation inside of their own homes.

"I can relate to them by being stationed in a war zone and being diagnosed with PTSD, so I'm not just a provider who can't relate," she said. "I can definitely relate."

Ames-Chase is one of 25 veterans who have been training at a boot camp in College Station this week that is unlike any they've gone through in the military. The group is studying entrepreneurship and business development at Texas A&M University, where they've attended academic classes, been mentored by experts in their businesses and gotten feedback on their business ideas.

The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities is part of a national program based at Syracuse University. The program started last Saturday and runs through Saturday, and is completely free for the veterans. The Texas A&M program had 50 to 60 applicants and accepted the best of those who were planning to start a business or have already launched their own business, said Blake Petty, the director of the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship with the Mays Business School.

"The military has a lot of support groups for, say, you want to get into construction, or whatever it may be," he said. "The military doesn't have much in the way of [assisting entrepreneurship], so you want to start your own business. You want to create your own job, not find a job. That's where we come in."

While many programs exist to assist veterans returning home, the transition process doesn't work well for some, said Ron Brown, a veteran who currently serves as the executive director in the School of Business at Texas Southern University.

Brown served for six years as an automated logistics analyst in the Army. He served in Iraq during Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and left the Army in 1996, landing at Texas A&M to earn his doctorate degree.

The Colorado Springs native thought programs that teach business skills could largely help those who are struggling to adjust to civilian life.

"I think if something like this had been around, or at least been available for a lot of returning soldiers, then I think that would help assist, and maybe even address, some of the homelessness we've been having," he said.

The veterans have been studying under mentors and experts at the Mays Business School. Brown plans to start a real estate company that invests in properties for low-income families, and had access to real estate investors who gave him advice.

"It's good to hear about some of these things and learn some of the strategies from an academic perspective, it's another to have someone who's done this, and they've had these pitfalls and they've failed in these areas, and then they've built back up, so they can tell you what to expect," he said.

Aside from academic lessons, the group has experienced a taste of College Station through various activities such as trips to Aggieland Outfitters and dinner with the Corps of Cadets, Petty said. On Thursday, the group joined Texas A&M Women's Basketball Coach Gary Blair for dinner at the Traditions Country Club.

While all of the veterans involved suffer from a disability they sustained while they were in combat, Petty said that's not an issue that holds them back; rather, the skills the veterans need are courage and confidence in business ventures.

"What fascinates me is we have a roomful of veterans, many of whom have seen very serious action, and gone through the challenges of having a disability related to that action; you wouldn't expect that confidence or courage is something that they need," he said. "What I hear from them is that they have confidence and courage in almost every area of their lives, except when dealing in the business world."

But studying under these Texas A&M experts has given courage to many. Ames-Chase plans to start her business in San Antonio as soon as possible.

"I'm going to put my feet to the grindstone and get it done," she said.

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