This is my National Post column for March 31, 2014. It's about heroes, and the unlikely role business can play in helping them overcome the trauma that comes from being heroic in difficult times.
This article started with a simple goal: to tell you about a unique week-long “boot camp” being held this summer in Regina, Quebec City and St. John’s, Nfld., for military members and veterans interested in starting businesses. Funded by the Prince’s Charities Canada, “Based in Business” offers lectures from entrepreneurs and business professors, assistance with business-plan research and development, mentoring and even startup loans.
But then the “mission creep” began. I decided to tell this story by asking some bootcamp graduates about their experience. But in these strange days for the Canadian Forces — post-Afghanistan, post-traumatic stress disorder — nothing is simple. Talking to Canada’s veterans about their careers becomes much more than a business conversation. Yet in the end, business took on an unexpectedly significant role. Entrepreneurship is not just about creating your own job; it’s about regaining control over your life.
If you’re a recently discharged member of the Canadian Forces, or soon to be discharged, or if you’ve been discharged for medical reasons at any time, you can apply for the “Based in Business” program. Rooted in university campuses in Quebec City (in May), St. John’s (in July), and Regina (in August), these free programs will accept 20 participants each. They offer access to people and resources who can help you complete a winning business plan and fuel a successful business launch.
For more information on The Prince’s Operation Entrepreneur go to http://www.cybf.ca/cybf_programs/operation-entrepreneur. The deadline for the Laval program (in French) is April 6; the deadline for the English-language camps is May 19.
That’s where most stories like this end. But this one is just starting.
My first call was to Gino Savard, a 27-year Forces veteran who runs a package-delivery company in Quebec City. A master warrant officer, he served five overseas tours: three in Yugoslavia, one in Haiti, and one in Afghanistan, in 2009, where he served as sergeant-major for the 51st Field Engineers Squadron. On Sept. 6, three weeks before his six-month tour was up, Savard was riding in an armoured vehicle south of Kandahar when they ran over an improvised explosive device. The truck flipped, killing two people and injuring five.
Savard was sent home to CFB Valcartier, north of Quebec City. As he recovered, he devoted the next six months to looking after his injured colleagues. “Everyone is OK now, physically,” he says. “Mentally, it’s still hard to for some to manage what happened.”
Like many Forces personnel, some of his fellows suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a terrible condition, easy to diagnose but difficult to treat. Savard stayed with his colleagues to help them adjust. It’s a sergeant-major’s job to make sure his troops are always ready for action, he says. “My ethic and my conviction was to stay with them and help them with their mental health as much as I could.”
A year ago, Savard got the idea to start a courier business using electric vehicles. His business plan was “80% complete” when he attended Laval University’s Based in Business bootcamp last summer. “They gave us a lot of information, on marketing, leadership, social media, and all the things you need to know as an entrepreneur,” he says.
Savard’s advisors suggested being “green” wasn’t a sufficient differentiator for a parcel company. They helped him focus on service, promoting the traits he’d learned in the military: loyalty, integrity, duty and discipline. “When you have these values,” he says, “anyone can be an entrepreneur.” Colis Grammes launched in October, backing up its promises with an app that alerts sender and recipient when packages are picked up and delivered.
Savard now employs eight drivers — all former military, all diagnosed with PTSD. “They can work any schedule they want,” he says. That kind of flexibility, he adds, “helps them adapt to civilian life.”
In Victoria, Lt. Col. Chris Linford is also recovering from PTSD. A musician who joined the Reserves to play in a pipe band, he studied nursing so he could become a combat medic. In his 25-year military career, he served in the Persian Gulf, Rwanda and Afghanistan. In Rwanda in 1994 he was part of a 200-member medical team sent by Canada to care for the victims of a brutal civil war. With civilian authority in tatters, the field hospital was quickly overwhelmed by ailing refugees.
“We didn’t count on the extent of the casualties,” Linford says. “The cholera was stopped early, but we saw advanced levels of diseases and injury that we had only ever seen in textbooks.” He was particularly struck by the deaths of 44 children under Canadian care. “That was really too much for any of us to bear,” he says. “I came back broken, mentally and physically.”
Like any good soldier, Linford shut away his feelings of anger, sadness and horror. After the 100-day mission, he returned to Canada and received regular promotions. “I thought I’d be okay,” he says. But after 10 years, the nightmares returned. He was short-tempered, unable to sleep, unable to concentrate. As deputy commander of the base hospital at CFB Borden in Ontario, he walked down the hall and asked the base surgeon for help.
Linford was quickly diagnosed with depression and PTSD. With drugs and weekly therapy, by the end of 2004 he was over the worst. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given his own field ambulance command in Edmonton. Then in 2009 he was asked to take command of a combat hospital in Kandahar. “Unfortunately, I didn’t count on the level of trauma I’d see there,” he says. The constant deaths and injuries triggered a relapse. “Three months into my seven-month tour of duty, my PTSD came back,” he says. He spent 18 months in therapy.
While his medical discharge took place early this year, Linford spent much of the past year writing a book about his experiences – Warrior Rising – to encourage others afflicted with PTSD to seek help. He attended Regina’s Based in Business bootcamp last summer to put a plan around his book and speaking services.
Eight months later, Linford has completed a 28-city book tour, he’s hiring a literary agent, and he is developing a couples-therapy program to help veterans and their spouses better manage PTSD together; he’s already raised several hundred thousand dollars to finance the first trials. “This is legacy stuff,” he says. “This will change relationships for the better in this country.”
With his business clearly heading in the right direction, I asked Linford how that affects his disorder. “Control is a big issue,” he confirmed. “With PTSD, you are never in control. The PTSD can manipulate and shape you any way you want.”
But with the confidence he’s gained in building his business, Linford feels he’s finally back in control. “I no longer live in fear of my triggers,” he says. When speaking about PTSD brings back memories, he says, “I sit there and control my response. I can manage it.”
Many PTSD sufferers assume “coping” with their syndrome is the best outcome they can expect. Linford now knows you can move beyond “coping” to “control,” and that is now his message.
Spreading hope and rebuilding lives is not the normal outcome of a business course. But it’s an example of the life-changing confidence that entrepreneurship engenders. Because every business begins with hope.