They Need You! Support a Veteran-Owned Organization This Memorial Day

Five military-driven enterprises have great stories behind them — and are worthy of our attention and backing

by Elizabeth M. Economou | Updated 28 May 2018 at 2:18 PM

Even after they leave the line of duty, members of our military put others above themselves in a myriad of ways. Many go on to build vibrant small businesses and advocacy groups that employ or support other veterans and their loved ones.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) released an encouraging report on veteran-owned businesses last year, revealing that about 2.52 million U.S. businesses are majority-owned by veterans.

The report noted that small businesses owned by veterans employed over 5 million people, had annual payrolls of $195 billion, and had receipts of $1.14 trillion.

Additionally, veteran-owned businesses represented 9.1 percent of all U.S. businesses.

The states of California, Texas and Florida had the most veteran-owned businesses, respectively.

This Memorial Day, it's wise for all of us to reflect on and appreciate the sacrifices of our veterans in every branch of the military.

What better way to honor our heroes this year than by supporting the entrepreneurs and organizations that continue to lift up fellow veterans? Check out these five worthy enterprises.

Connecting vets in D.C. (photo: HillVets)

HillVets (
www.hillvets.org)
We don't hear much bipartisan support for anything these days, which makes HillVets all the more noteworthy.

A bipartisan group of veterans, service members, and supporters launched HillVets to help hundreds of veterans become more involved in their "second service" to our nation.

Based in Washington, D.C., "HillVets has worked to raise national awareness of the value that veterans bring to relevant policy decisions, as well as the positive impact they have on our local communities," according to the group's website.

With all they've sacrificed on behalf of all Americans, veterans clearly deserve a place at the policy-making table.

"HillVets started about five years ago," Justin Brown, HillVets' founder, told LifeZette. "We were simply trying to get veterans together in the D.C. area and had no intention of ever becoming a nonprofit organization. Yet we realized there is a fast-growing number of veterans who want to continue serving their nation. We all shared this story of coming to D.C. without a network, in a city where it's really helpful to have contacts. So we set out to make the transition a little easier for [other] veterans."

Brown served in the U.S. Navy 2000-2004, including three deployments to the Middle East, and was on active duty during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"Transition sucks," Brown said bluntly, "and it is particularly hard for veterans moving to a new city, especially one as expensive as Washington, D.C. Helping incredible veterans who are coming from across the country, who are excited about their nation's future and want to do the right thing, is fulfilling. But we need help — housing is expensive. We want to build a house for our veterans to call home in our nation's capital. We're actively searching for a donor to make a large legacy gift that will impact veterans and service members."

The organization has brought more than 35 veterans to Capitol Hill in the past two years, said Brown, and hosts the largest and most prominent annual veterans awards event, the HillVets 100.

Uniting teams (photo: Leashes of Valor)

Leashes of Valor (www.leashesofvalor.org)


Launched a year ago, this group pairs veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) with trained service dogs — which are provided at no cost to veterans.

With a philosophy of "one leash saves two lives — the veteran and the K9," the organization is headquartered in Milford, Virginia, and co-founded by retired Marine Capt. Jason Haag, who also serves as CEO. Since retiring from the military, he's worked tirelessly to help veterans acclimate to civilian life.

Each dog in the program receives over 100 hours of training, and is socialized for months before being paired with its veteran.

"We had our first warrior graduate last February, and to be able to see him enjoy his family again — to hear the excitement in his wife's voice, telling us she has her husband back — has been the most rewarding aspect of co-founding Leashes of Valor with my two best friends and fellow veterans," Haag told LifeZette.

Playing to win (photo credit: Skip Peterson, Maj. Matt Butler of Rollors.com)

Rollors (www.rollors.com)
What could be more fun at an outdoor party than a friendly lawn game of Rollers? Part bocce, part bowling, and even part horseshoes, Rollors was created by Air Force officer Matt Butler with the mission of employing fellow veterans.

A Minnesota native who splits his time between Georgia and Florida, Butler visualized the idea for Rollors on his downtime between deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he supported combat operations. Butler serves in the Air Force as air battle manager; he'll retire soon after a 20-year career.

"I'm the guy who operates the surveillance equipment on the jet," Butler modestly told LifeZette.

Launched in 2010, Rollers today outsources 80 percent of its vital business processes to former and current military personnel and their spouses. It began simply enough: Around the time of the last recession, Butler hired former military vets with wood-working skills to build the game pieces for rollers from their home workshops.

In a short span of time, the company has sold between 50,000 and 55,000 games, and continues to grow at a steady clip, says Butler. More importantly, Rollors is helping numerous veterans gain their footing once again. Priceless.

Serving others (photo: Fire Dept. Coffee)

Fire Dept. Coffee (www.firedeptcoffee.com

)
Based in Rockford, Illinois, Fire Dept. Coffee (FDC) is serving up more than a robust cup of joe; it's brewing goodwill.

The company was begun in 2016 by veterans who are now firefighters. "Building a brand and company that is centered around community and service" was the inspiration for starting the company, founder Luke Schneider told LifeZette.

"Having the opportunity to work with different fire service and military-related charities, and being able to support them and help them spread the word has been the most rewarding aspect of starting Fire Dept. Coffee," he said.

"Hearing these stories about lives changed is the most rewarding thing."

The company employs first responders and plans to hire veterans as it grows, said Schneider. FDC donates between 10 to 20 percent of its sales to military and fire service-related charities. FDC has also teamed up with partners to raise money for the Wheels 4 Warriors Initiative. All money raised goes to helping a wounded veteran deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan obtain a new American-made vehicle.

As for the coffee itself, it comes in an original or dark roast — along with unique spirit-infused blends, including Tequila, Irish Whiskey, Bourbon, and Rum.

Beyond that, FDC's mission is summed up on the company website: "If there's one thing we learned during our years in the military and the fire service, it's that a good cup of coffee and a well-timed jolt of caffeine are essential for long nights and high-octane lifestyles."

Working for a healthy life (photo: Sworkit)

Sworkit (www.sworkit.com)
Founded by former U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Ryan Hanna and his team, Sworkit is a fitness app that creates custom-made exercise playlists for subscribers, who can also communicate in real time with personal trainers.

"The military prioritizes individual fitness and makes it easy for us to stay focused, disciplined and have the time available to work out," Hanna told LifeZette. "Once we no longer have that, it can be easy to lose that focus. Other priorities can win out over fitness."

Sworkit, which stands for "simply work it," was created with this in mind. In 2016, the ABC show "Shark Tank" made the biggest tech startup investment in its history — $1.5 million — in Nexercise, the D.C-based technology fitness startup that offers Sworkit.

"Every week we hear from users that Sworkit is the first thing that ever worked for them," said Hanna, in terms of helpful exercise routines. "Hearing these stories about lives changed is the most rewarding thing."

Elizabeth Economou is a former CNBC staff writer and adjunct professor. Follow her on Twitter.

(photo credit, homepage image: Leashes of Valor; photo credit, article image: Fired Department Coffee)

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