As of June, some 26,000 U.S. service men and women had been wounded in the course of serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many are returning home with disabilities that have hampered their ability to return to the civilian workforce.

A first-of-its-kind program by the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University is seeking to help disabled veterans overcome the closing of “traditional economic opportunities … as a result of attitudinal barriers to people with disabilities.”

Called the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, the program is led by Prof. Mike Haynie, a former major in the U.S. Air Force and a professor of entrepreneurship at the school.

“Back six or seven months ago in the process of doing some research, it became clear to us there is an impending crisis due to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Haynie said.

Noting the number of military personnel wounded and disabled during their service, the professor said researchers saw that “while their (military personnel) physical wounds may heal, a lot of them can’t go back to the work lives they had before their service.”

To help the disabled veterans, the researchers quickly devised a system to offer training in entrepreneurship — a way Haynie said has historically provided a path for individuals to re-enter the economy — to veterans returning from the two overseas operations.

After telling the school’s dean — a former Army officer and veteran of the Vietnam War — of their idea, the program “literally went from an idea to a program in 24 hours,” Haynie said.

Funded by private donations and taught by some of the best teachers and entrepreneurs in the country, students in the program “don’t have to pay a nickel,” he said.

The program consists of two phases.

The first phase, which began this week, is an online course moderated by university faculty where students complete readings and assignments designed to provide them with a foundation to build upon.

“The whole point of the online portion … is to get everybody working from the same place,” Haynie said.

One of the students now working on that online portion is Waxahachie’s John Raftery, a former corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps who served during the opening stages of Operation: Iraqi Freedom.

During the course of his service, Raftery suffered hearing loss and, upon his return stateside, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and received the help of the Veteran’s Administration.

Raftery, who officially completed his contract with the Corps last month, said finding a job was difficult after he returned.

“When I first got back, it was real, real tough for me to find a job,” he said. “There wasn’t much out there for someone who was in reconnaissance, except for maybe law enforcement.”

Married, with a 2-year-old daughter, Raftery found a job in accounting at a health-care company in Dallas after about a year of looking, he said.

While working, the former corporal is also pursuing his bachelor’s of business administration in accounting at Dallas Baptist University, which he is scheduled to complete in May.

Raftery, who would like to start his own business, said he first heard of the program when he saw a link for it on a Web site.

About a week later, he had completed his application packet for the Whitman School program, submitting his personal statement, short-answers and other information for consideration.

Haynie said the candidates were selected on their fulfillment of the program’s pre-requisite - a service-connected disability - and the strength of their application, particularly upon the passion for entrepreneurship exhibited in their answers.

“We want these folks to succeed and we recognize that starting your own business is difficult,” Haynie said, explaining why passion figured so centrally in the admissions process.

The second phase

Raftery begins the second phase of the five-week course Aug. 11, when classes start at the university’s home in Syracuse, N.Y.

The course is designed to take students through the steps of starting their own business and will be very similar to boot camp, Haynie said, explaining that the students will start early in the morning and end late at night while learning skills such as identifying a viable market and securing funding.

Throughout their time at the school, the students will also actively work on their own business ideas with the help of the school’s faculty.

“It’s not all lecture, lecture, lecture,” Haynie said. “It’s lecture, now let’s go do.”

The faculty members who help the 20 students in the first class will continue to be a resource for them even after the formal coursework is over, as every student will be assigned a faculty mentor in addition to a local mentor, Haynie said.

Raftery said he intends to use the EBV “as a launch pad … hoping this will bring me into the next step.”

“I want to really have a grasp on what kind of business I’m interested in starting, and I’m excited to work with experts in entrepreneurship,” he said, adding that his plan is to get matters moving for his new business as soon as possible while staying on his degree course.

“I’m really still learning about it,” the former Marine said.

Raftery isn’t the only one hoping the program serves as a launching point.

While he hopes the program will eventually expand to teaching three sessions of 30 students every year, Haynie said he hopes that other schools and entities throughout the country will follow Syracuse’s lead and work to help disabled veterans, regardless of branch, state or whether they were an officer or enlisted.

“There is nothing in the country like this,” he said.

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