During the 1990s, Michael D. Lathon saw action in Operation Desert Storm, where his leadership earned him a combat promotion to a U.S. Marine sergeant and a Joint Service Commendation Medal. Lathon served post-9/11 in Operation Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom II as a U.S. Marine Corps infantry unit leader. His 22-year military career also put him in counter drug operations and Army Special Forces at the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama.
The 45-year-old retired gunnery sergeant became a civilian in 2007. Major injuries received in Iraq’s Al-Anbar province made it difficult for him to assume regular civilian work. He has had multiple surgeries—four knee, two spine, and one for his upper-back, and his jaw has been reconstructed twice. “Many employers frown on hiring or keeping anyone under these conditions,” he says.
Lathon opted to pursue a different path—entrepreneurship. Today, he is the president and owner of AACON General Contractors L.L.C., a 10-employee Louisville, Kentucky, company that provides construction services to the federal government and municipalities. Equipped with $500,000 in financing from bank loans, Lathon started AACON in November 2005. In 2011 the company’s contracts topped $850,000, and so far have reached $8.5 million in 2012.
Like Lathon, many of the nation’s service members are returning home and having a difficult time finding their way through a difficult job market. The jobless rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is 9.7%. The rate of unemployment is even higher for wounded warriors. At the same time, the Small Business Administration reports that veterans are more likely to start a business than the general population. Reasons for this include the discipline and risk-taking experienced in the field. When you’ve risked your life, taking a risk to start a business is put into perspective. There is also increasing support for programs aimed at disabled service veteran-owned enterprises.
Business Training Camps
Lathon attributes his business success to his participation in the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The nine-day EBV crash course is designed to help participants get their businesses off the ground or enhance ventures they have already started. “I can directly credit EBV with helping me take a more complete view of the business that has contributed to overall growth,” Lathon says. He learned how to look at profit and loss statements, weigh key legal issues, and pursue contracting opportunities.
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