How I lost an arm–then re­gained my pur­pose

Inc. (USA) - - LAUNCH -

I wanted to get a schol­ar­ship to play bas­ket­ball. I was con­tacted by West Point about play­ing bas­ket­ball there and be­com­ing a cadet. At first I dis­missed it. I didn’t have a good un­der­stand­ing of what West Point was.

The minute I stepped on the West Point cam­pus, I knew it was the place for me. I was drawn to the in­ten­sity and sense of pur­pose. There was noth­ing that set any of the other schools I was con­sid­er­ing apart—they were all about where you were go­ing to party and hang out.

Part of the great thing about West Point was that I didn’t fully un­der­stand what I was get­ting into. I didn’t know what the plebe year was all about. It was prob­a­bly bet­ter that way. The bas­ket­ball coaches paint a rosy pic­ture. Be­ing there was a huge sur­prise and a cul­ture shock. It was four years of just try­ing to sur­vive.

Af­ter West Point, my first duty sta­tion was in Korea. Then I went to Fort Ste­wart, in Ge­or­gia, and de­ployed from there to Iraq in Fe­bru­ary 2004.

Our fo­cus was on re­build­ing the Iraqi po­lice force. We were work­ing hand in hand with Iraqis, train­ing them, equip­ping them, go­ing on mis­sions with them. We were re­spon­si­ble for the se­cu­rity of the po­lice sta­tion, and for pro­tect­ing our area of op­er­a­tions from in­sur­gents.

That’s where things got a lit­tle messy. We were go­ing on mis­sions to flush out in­sur­gents who were plant­ing IEDs, shoot­ing rock­ets at the embassy, or blow­ing up the po­lice sta­tions. On one of our pa­trols, near Baqubah, our Humvee drove into an am­bush and was hit by a rocket-pro­pelled grenade. I re­mem­ber be­ing loaded into a mede­vac he­li­copter. When I woke up from the coma, my par­ents and doc­tors had to explain what had hap­pened— and that I’d lost an arm.

I spent my 25th birth­day in the hospi­tal think- ing that my life was over. It wasn’t just that I’d lost an arm. It was that I no longer had a ca­reer. I had been phys­i­cally fit, men­tally fit, at the top of my game, and I went from that to a state of feel­ing ba­si­cally use­less. I was ter­ri­fied about be­ing just cast aside while ev­ery­body else moved on. That’s what fu­eled me to go into busi­ness and to want so des­per­ately to stay con­nected to the mil­i­tary and the mis­sion.

I was con­stantly in pain, and I al­ways had to think of a dif­fer­ent way to do things. I wor­ried about hav­ing to get in line at Star­bucks and buy a cof­fee and get change and carry it back and open the door. Those were the things that plagued my mind, more than the big­ger pic­ture of what was go­ing on with my life.

When you think of a wounded war­rior, you think of a young male in a wheel­chair. I had a hard time iden­ti­fy­ing as a vet­eran and fit­ting in as a fe­male who was wounded in com­bat. Peo­ple weren’t laugh­ing to my face—it was mostly prob­a­bly in my head. But I look dif­fer­ent. When­ever you’re dif­fer­ent, you’re kind of vul­ner­a­ble. I did an in­tern­ship on Capi­tol Hill. It was re­ally dis­cour­ag­ing. There were very im­por­tant is­sues that Congress had to deal with. Do the sol­diers have the right hel­mets? Do we have the right equip­ment? Are vets get­ting the right care? I was amazed at how many times the de­bate be­came par­ti­san, and peo­ple were will­ing to ig­nore the com­mon-sense so­lu­tion.

Then I thought I’d maybe work as a con­trac­tor fo­cused on sup­port­ing the mil­i­tary. That’s when I re­al­ized there was a big dis­con­nect be­tween what was go­ing on in Wash­ing­ton and what was hap­pen­ing down­range. There were so many peo­ple who didn’t have com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence try­ing to make de­ci­sions and in­flu­ence pol­icy. I thought, you know what? I can do this bet­ter. I could start a com­pany. I could hire peo­ple who have the right ex­per­tise, and pro­vide the sup­port my­self.

When I was at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter, there was a colonel who wanted me to help him bet­ter un­der­stand how tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tions could be used in the field. I was able to lever­age that ex­pe­ri­ence and other re­la­tion­ships to learn the in­dus­try and start po­si­tion­ing my­self for a ca­reer, and to be­gin build­ing the infrastructure of my com­pany in the back­ground.

There’s no question that my mil­i­tary train­ing helped me be­come a bet­ter en­tre­pre­neur. You go through so much train­ing in the mil­i­tary, but from that first year as a plebe, what the mil­i­tary is

Lots of peo­ple be­come en­trepreneurs be­cause of an un­ex­pected ca­reer shock, such as a cor­po­rate ac­qui­si­tion or lay­off. Dawn Hal­faker’s mil­i­tary ca­reer was ended by an ex­plo­sion and a cat­a­strophic in­jury, in Iraq, in 2004. Yet Hal­faker would even­tu­ally re­cover and form Hal­faker and As­so­ci­ates, an Arlington, Vir­gini­abased con­trac­tor in data an­a­lyt­ics, cy­berse­cu­rity, soft­ware en­gi­neer­ing, and IT infrastructure for the fed­eral govern­ment, in­clud­ing the Navy, the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, and the Depart­ment of De­fense. –As told to Kim­berly Weisul

teach­ing you is how to be re­silient. You plan your mis­sion, and you ex­e­cute, but noth­ing ever goes ac­cord­ing to plan. Your job as an of­fi­cer is to con­tinue to lead in not-ideal cir­cum­stances, and you’re prob­a­bly un­der­re­sourced. Be­ing an en­tre­pre­neur and get­ting some­thing started, you never have ev­ery­thing you need, and things never go ac­cord­ing to plan.

You also learn that the peo­ple who can make things hap­pen are the ones who are chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo. There are peo­ple who fig­ure out how to make the whole sys­tem work for them, as op­posed to be­ing a fol­lower. From the start of my com­pany, I rec­og­nized there were other peo­ple in my sit­u­a­tion. As my com­pany grew, I knew I could bring in other wounded war­riors.

Hir­ing other vet­er­ans af­fects my com­pany in a pos­i­tive way. There’s a sim­i­lar value sys­tem, a sim­i­lar un­der­stand­ing of the mis­sion. Then there’s the skill set to do data an­a­lyt­ics and IT infrastructure. For the type of work we’re do­ing, we need peo­ple who un­der­stand the mil­i­tary, so that’s crit­i­cal. But as the com­pany grows, we value di­ver­sity. We need to make sure that em­ploy­ees who are not vet­er­ans can still do well here. It’s some­thing I’m aware of. I don’t want to cre­ate this in-group.

Cer­ti­fi­ca­tions help tremen­dously, es­pe­cially in my in­dus­try, where there are hardly any medium-size com­pa­nies. You’re not go­ing to com­pete with Lock­heed Martin. But you can lever­age the set-asides to have an op­por­tu­nity to show what your com­pany can do. Once you’re able to do that, then even­tu­ally you can com­pete with Lock­heed Martin. I’m not in any rush to do it. We’re still find­ing our sweet spot and try­ing to re­fine that be­fore we say we’re the best at what we do and we can beat any­body. That’s the goal.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.