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Veterans in Business

Special Coverage Veterans in Business

Serving Those Who Serve

Al Tracy, with volunteers Andrea Luppi, left, and Darlene Slater.

Al Tracy, with volunteers Andrea Luppi, left, and Darlene Slater.

The USO (United Service Organizations) turned 80 this year. It celebrated, in essence, by enthusiastically carrying out the same mission it has had since 1941 — ‘strengthening America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home, and country throughout their service to our nation.’ The organization, and the local chapter based in Chicopee (Pioneer Valley USO), does this in a number of ways, from care packages to Monday night dinners at the Westover base, to a program that helps transition servicemen and women to the civilian workforce. For Al Tracy, executive director of the chapter, this isn’t a job — it’s a passion.

 

When Al Tracy was serving with the First Marines along the DMZ in Vietnam, the highlight of his day, week, or month — fill in the blank — was receiving a care package from home.

He would get one from his mother pretty much every month, he recalled, adding that the best thing in them was her apple pie, always wrapped in tinfoil, which was almost as precious — and welcome — as the food.

“We needed that tinfoil — we would reuse it to cook things,” recalled Tracy, flashing back more than a half-century as best his memory would allow, adding that such recollections certainly help drive him in a role that is far more a passion than it is a job — executive director of the Pioneer Valley USO, housed at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.

There is no ‘interim’ next to Tracy’s title, but technically … perhaps there should be. Involved with the USO (United Service Organizations) since the ’80s, he agreed to serve temporarily as executive director when the person in that job left it roughly 15 years ago.

“They’re still looking for an executive director,” said Tracy with a laugh, adding that he likes everything about his job — except all the paperwork — and especially anything that has to do with helping active-duty servicemen and women and also veterans in need.

“I have a passion, and I love taking care of our military. I think that what they do, the sacrifices they make, are countless. You’re up all night, you don’t get weekends off … you’re stuck wherever you’re deployed. They need to know that we’re thinking of them.”

And there are many programs and services that fall into that category, from the care packages that are sent out to destinations around the globe to the Monday-night dinners the USO prepares for those serving at Westover, and also other servicemen and veterans as well (he and his staff were doing the prep work for one as he talked with BusinessWest on Nov. 1); from a program called Pathfinder that helps retiring servicemen and women transition to the workforce to providing tickets to Thunderbirds games and other sporting events.

“I have a passion, and I love taking care of our military,” he said. “I think that what they do, the sacrifices they make, are countless. You’re up all night, you don’t get weekends off … you’re stuck wherever you’re deployed. They need to know that we’re thinking of them.”

Tracy is even busier than normal these days as he coordinates a transition of sorts for the local chapter, which is giving up its independent charter and becoming part of the World USO.

“Our charter was dissolved on Oct. 1 — we’re now part of World USO. I’m excited. Maybe I won’t have as much paperwork, but I haven’t seen that yet,” he said, adding that the agency at Westover will continue doing what it’s been doing from the beginning: “strengthening America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home, and country throughout their service to our nation.”

That’s the official wording in the mission statement, but it’s more than words for those tasked with carrying it out. It is a passion, and one that prompts a pause for reflection as the USO, started by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, marks its 80th anniversary. Best known perhaps as the agency that sent Bob Hope to entertain troops in hotspots around the globe, the USO has changed over the years, and some adjustments certainly had to be made during COVID. But at its core, the agency and its purpose remain the same: it’s there to keep deployed service members, and also veterans, connected.

For this issue and its focus on veterans in business, we talked at length with Tracy about the USO, its all-important mission, and the many ways in which it is carried out.

 

Corps Mission

As he talked with BusinessWest, Tracy was thinking ahead to the Nov. 27 Thunderbirds game against the Hartford Wolf Pack, a matinee, at which he will drop the ceremonial puck. It’s an assignment he’s looking forward to.

“I told them I wanted a crash helmet, so when I fall on the ice I don’t hit the back of my head,” he said, adding that the agency partners with the team to get servicemen and women discounted admission, and also tries to secure tickets (to raffle off or simply give away) for area concerts and other types of shows.

Al Tracy says the USO’s mission comes down to a simple assignment

Al Tracy says the USO’s mission comes down to a simple assignment: keeping servicemen and women connected — to their family, their hometown, and their country.

Dropping the puck is just one of many rewarding aspects to a job Tracy has grown into over the past decade and a half after serving the USO in a variety of capacities, incuding board member and treasurer. Indeed, he’s put his own stamp on a position, and an agency, with a proud legacy and an important mission, one that brings him back to his time in Vietnam, which he can pinpoint with astonishing detail after all these years.

“Let’s see … 11 months, 28 days, four hours, 15 minutes, and maybe 30 seconds, but who’s counting? I was looking at my watch as we left the ground,” he recalled, adding that the best of those days were the ones when the care packages arrived. “During the war, my best buddy was my mom; she sent care packages all the time, and it was pretty awesome. Now … I’m just passing it on.”

And in all kinds of ways.

The care packages might be the best-known and perhaps the most symbolic part of the mission, he said, adding that the proud tradition is carried on today.

“It’s a wonderful organization and my favorite charity. I like everything we do — and I get to laugh everyday, so that makes it even better.”

“We have a huge care-package program,” he noted, adding that the local chapter will send them anywhere — all it needs is an address. “Those packages keep them connected to home; it lets them know people are thinking about them.”

Elaborating, he said the packages can be personalized, and many are, but there are many staples — personal-care items, beef jerky, snacks, sunscreen, and wet wipes, which can and often are used to clean weapons.

But there are many other ways in which the local USO carries out its mission, starting with the Monday dinners served at the base (the cafeteria is closed that night). There are usually 125 to 150 people who partake, including some area veterans, he said, adding that meals are delivered to those serving at guard posts, on the runways, and other locations.

The USO facility at Westover Air Reserve Base

The USO facility at Westover Air Reserve Base provides servicemen and women with a number of services and needed items, including books to read in what’s known as the ‘relaxing room.’

There’s also a food pantry at which service members can buy items; that facility also provides items to veterans in need.

The agency also marks deployments and homecomings, and it will also help take fallen servicemen from the area to their final resting place. It will assist servicemen and women in transition with furniture and other needs, said Tracy, and even provide small loans to those in need.

Then there’s the Pathfinder program that assists those transitioning from the service to the workforce.

“We’ll help them put together a résumé and learn how to interview,” he explained, adding that participants in the program are assigned a ‘scout’ who will assist in a job search on many levels.

There’s also the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, he went on, a program that enables servicemen and women to be recorded while reading a portion of a book or poem. That tape will then be sent to a designated family on a specified date, such as the holidays.

 

Finishing Touch

“That’s just another way that those off serving their country can stay connected,” Tracy noted, adding that this has been the simple yet all-important mission of the USO from the beginning.

For him, as noted, it’s not a job, but rather a passion.

“It’s a wonderful organization and my favorite charity,” he said. “I like everything we do — and I get to laugh everyday, so that makes it even better.”

It’s a unique mission, and for 80 years, it’s been mission accomplished.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Veterans in Business

Labor Pains

 

The unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 — a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans — rose to 7.3% in 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year. The jobless rate for all veterans increased to 6.5% in 2020. These increases reflect the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labor market.

In August 2020, 40% of Gulf War-era II veterans had a service-connected disability, compared with 26% of all veterans. Among other highlights from the 2020 data:

• Unemployment rates for both male and female veterans increased in 2020, reflecting the COVID-19 pandemic. The rate for male veterans was 6.5%, little different from the rate of 6.7% for female veterans.

• Unemployment rates for white, black, Asian, and Hispanic veterans were lower than for their non-veteran counterparts in 2020.

• Among the 581,000 unemployed veterans in 2020, 54% were ages 25 to 54, 41% were age 55 and over, and 5% were ages 18 to 24.

• The unemployment rate of veterans with a service-connected disability, at 6.2% in August 2020, did not have a statistically significant change over the year. The rate for veterans with no disability rose to 7.2%.

“In 2020, 18.5 million men and women were veterans, accounting for about 7% of the civilian non-institutional population age 18 and over.”

• Gulf War-era II veterans who reported a service-connected disability rating of less than 30% were much more likely to be in the labor force than those with a rating of 60% or higher in August 2020 (91.5%, compared with 63.6%).

• In August 2020, 31% of employed veterans with a service-connected disability worked in the public sector, compared with 19% of veterans with no disability and 14% of non-veterans.

In 2020, 18.5 million men and women were veterans, accounting for about 7% of the civilian non-institutional population age 18 and over. Of all veterans, about 10% were women. In the survey, veterans are defined as men and women who have previously served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces and who were civilians at the time these data were collected.

Veterans are much more likely to be men than are non-veterans, and they also tend to be older. In part, this reflects the characteristics of veterans who served during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam era, all of whom are now over 60 years old. Veterans who served during these wartime periods accounted for 37% (6.8 million) of the total veteran population in 2020. Forty-one percent of veterans (7.6 million) served during the Gulf War era I (August 1990 to August 2001) or Gulf War era II (September 2001 to present). Twenty-two percent (4.1 million) served outside the designated wartime periods.

In August 2020, 4.7 million veterans, or 26% of the total, had a service-connected disability. Veterans with a service-connected disability are assigned a disability rating by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or the U.S. Department of Defense. Ratings range from 0 to 100%, in increments of 10 percentage points, depending on the severity of the condition.

The unemployment rate for veterans with a service-connected disability was 6.2% in August 2020, not statistically different from the rate for veterans with no disability (7.2%). The unemployment rates for male and female veterans with a service-connected disability were not statistically different (5.8% and 8.9%, respectively). The labor-force participation rate for veterans with a service-connected disability (48.6%) was also not statistically different from the rate for veterans with no disability (47.2%). Among veterans with a service-connected disability, 27% reported a disability rating of less than 30%, while 44% had a rating of 60% or higher.

Veterans in Business

Soldier Stories

As the nation honors those who have served on Veterans Day, BusinessWest does the same with a special section on veterans in business. It includes an in-depth look at why some companies make the hiring of veterans a priority, and why others should follow suit. But we’ll start with several profiles of individuals who have made the transition from military service to business management, and how they’re taking lessons from their years of service into the workplace.


 

Corey Murphy, President, First American Insurance

Retired Marine Corps Major Stresses Teamwork, Accountability

 

 


 

Dorothy Ostrowski, President, Adams & Ruxton Construction

Her Afghanistan Tour Brought Many Lessons for Life, Business

 

 


 

Andrew Anderlonis, President, Rediker Software

His Time in the Navy Provided an Education on Many Levels

 

 


 

Veterans in Business

Retired Marine Corps Major Stresses Teamwork, Accountability

Corey Murphy, third from left, with several First American Insurance employees during a Toys for Tots campaign the company helped launch.

Corey Murphy knew he was no longer on active duty with the Marine Corps when he walked into his first staff meeting at his family’s business — Chicopee-based First American Insurance — with the accent on when he walked in.

Indeed, that meeting was scheduled for 8 a.m., and from his years as a Marine officer, Murphy translated this to mean that he should arrive no later than 10 minutes before the hour.

“You never, ever walk into a meeting if the boss is already there; you just don’t do that,” he told BusinessWest, referring to life in the Marine Corps. “So I show up at 10 of 8, because … if you’re on time, you’re late. I’m looking at my watch, and I’m the only one sitting there. I look at my watch again at 8, and I’m still the only one sitting there, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘what’s going on here?’ I couldn’t comprehend the idea of having an 8 o’clock meeting and have it not start by 8 o’clock.”

This wasn’t a serious wake-up call, but simply a reminder that life in the business world is not exactly like life in the Corps. He would get other lessons to this effect, he went on, adding that he once asked someone to get him something by the ‘close of business.’

“Two of the biggest similarities between the military and the business world are teamwork and accountability.”

“The military interpretation of that is that is ‘when you’re done, then you can close your business day,’” he explained. “As opposed to ‘it’s 5 o’clock, and I’m going home.’ They didn’t get it done by 5 and went home, and I said, ‘wait, I said close of business.’”

So there was certainly a period of what Murphy called “transition and adjustment” from life in the military to work at the office on Front Street. But, overall, many of the tenets, if you will, of life in the service do carry over to the workplace, often creating a more focused, more efficient, more sustainable workplace, he said, listing everything from an emphasis on teamwork to the need to keep up with — and take full advantage of — ever-improving technology, to stepping up when the need arises.

But there are other, perhaps even more important takeaways (if that’s the right term) from the military, he said, citing both the company’s philosophy of continuous education and training, and its commitment to the community.

There is a heavy emphasis on the former in the military and especially the Marine Corps, he noted, adding that there is now a similar degree of importance attached to it at First American.

“This is something I have tried to instill with everyone; training is very critical,” he said, adding that an even heavier emphasis on community involvement — one existed already at this company— stems from his experiences with the Marines is such places as Okinawa, the Philippines, and Korea.

“Coming home, I realized we have resources that we can use to try to make a difference, and so we try to help where we can,” he said, mentioning, as just one example, the company’s visit to a nearby elementary school on Halloween to distribute candy to the students.

Overall, Murphy spent 20 years with the Marines, on active duty and with the reserves, and retired as a major. He said joining the Corps was something he “always wanted to do,” although he couldn’t pinpoint a reason for this. He said his uncle served in the Marines during Vietnam and took part in the prolonged siege of Khe Sanh, but doubts whether that was a motivating factor in his decision.

Murphy went into the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Va. while attending Virginia Military Academy, and, after gaining his commission, was stationed in Hawaii and, later, Korea and Okinawa.

In the fall of 1998, he finished his four-year tour of duty and joined the family business. He would eventually buy it from his father in 2014.

After only six months of being home, he joined the Reserves, and would continue to serve — he did take a break at one point to earn his MBA — for another 16 years, before retiring in 2016. The last five years were spent with Marine Forces Pacific, leaving First American for stretches lasting several weeks on average to take part in exercises across that vast theater.

To be able to take part in such assignments, Murphy said he knew he needed a capable team behind him, one he knew he could trust to carry on without him — although, with technology, he was able to keep in touch.

And this is one of the many aspects of military service that has carried over to the workplace, he said, noting that teamwork and doing what’s necessary are some of the guiding philosophies at First American.

“Two of the biggest similarities between the military and the business world are teamwork and accountability,” he said, adding that they are necessary in both settings, and he has worked to instill these attributes in his team of nearly 20 employees. “If someone’s out sick or if we’re down a person or things get busy, there’s an expectation that people are going to pitch in and do whatever they need to do.”

Overall, Murphy said what he’s brought back from the Marine Corps is a philosophy of “adapt and overcome,” which is a big reason for the success the company has enjoyed.

“You adapt to the situation, and you overcome,” he explained, adding that this what happens in the Marines. “You go in with aplan, but the enemy has a plan, too. So you have to adapt to the situation you’re presented with and come up with a new plan.”

Murphy said he’s adjusted well to the business world and how it differs from the military, right down to what time people are expected at meetings and what ‘close of day’ means in this setting.

But the two worlds are actually more similar than they are different, he added, and those basic tenets of teamwork and accountability are the cornerstones on which success is built.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Veterans in Business

Her Afghanistan Tour Brought Many Lessons for Life, Business

Dorothy Ostrowski is seen here during her tour of duty in Afghanistan with Gen. Karl Eikenberry (center) and fellow military police officers (from left) Ryan Stone, Dominic Cirillo, and Jeffrey Botcher.

Dorothy Ostrowski was only 17 when she joined the Army National Guard.

She needed her parents’ consent to do so at that age, and she got it, because they knew — and, more importantly, she knew — that this was something she needed at that critical junction in her life.

“I didn’t have probably the best circle of friends at that time,” she told BusinessWest, turning back the clock more than 23 years. “I was looking to get some direction in my life.”

To say she found some through her seven years in a military police company, serving in locations ranging from Italy to Panama to Afganistan, where she became a chase driver for Gen. Karl Eikenberry, would be a huge understatement.

Indeed, she said, during that time of service, she gained invaluable lessons in teamwork, trusting those you’re working beside, being ready for essentially anything, taking nothing for granted, and taking good care of team members.

And they have served her well since, in positions ranging from emergency-room nurse to president of the company that she and her husband, Mike, purchased at the start of this year, West Springfield-based Adams & Ruxton Construction.

“There are many ways in which what you learn in the military impacts what you do in life and in business,” she noted. “There’s the teamwork dynamic, the attention to detail, and the mindset of taking care of the troops — your troops eat first. It’s about taking care of the people around you, because they’re the ones who are going to pull you through things. And that directly impacts where I am now.”

“There would be times when you were out on convoys and there would be explosions, or you’d be out on a mission … and you’re not really thinking that you might not come back at the end of the day.”

Afghanistan was essentially the final stop in a lengthy stint with the National Guard that, as noted, took Ostrowski to several other countries and working situations. She told BusinessWest that her first ambition was to be a police officer. But, as she said, she needed to bring direction to her life, and so, while still enrolled at Chicopee Comprehensive High School, she made the decision to join the Guard with the stated goal of becoming a military police officer. Boot camp was the summer after her junior year.

Looking back on her time in Afghanistan, Ostrowski said it wasn’t until that tour of duty was over and she was back in this country that she could really put those experiences into their proper perspective.

“When you’re there, you’re just doing your job,” she told BusinessWest. “There would be times when you were out on convoys and there would be explosions, or you’d be out on a mission … and you’re not really thinking that you might not come back at the end of the day.”

Her Guard unit was there to be part of the efforts to train the Afghan national army, she explained, adding that her specific role with the Military Police was to protect Gen. Eikenberry, an assignment that often put her at the wheel of the chase car that rode close behind his Chevy Suburban.

“We would ensure that no one tried to drive into him or drive him off the road,” she noted. “Our mission for those several months was to get him where he needed to go safely, whether that meant chase-driving him or accompanying him in Blackhawks or Chinooks to different villages in Afghanistan.”

When that tour of duty ended, Ostrowski enrolled at Holyoke Community College, with the goal of joining the law-enforcement field, but instead took a different career path — into healthcare. She eventually became an emergency-room nurse after gaining her degree at Springfield Technical Community College, and later, while seeking work that would allow her to spend her time with her family, joined Sound Physicians, a medical process-improvement company. Along the way, she earned a dual master’s degree in nursing and business administration at Elms College to better position herself for new opportunities and, ultimately, a leadership position.

Dorothy Ostrowski says she won’t hesitate to do anything she asks her team members to do.

She created one for herself by acquiring Adams & Ruxton, a move she categorized as part of a lifelong pattern of continually seeking out new challenges and raising the bar when it comes it comes to her career ambitions — something else she took home from her time in the military.

Today, she leads a team of 25 people and boasts a broad job description, everything from meeting with clients to coordinating the subcontractors to handling the financials. And she brings her experience in the military to the workplace seemingly every day, especially those lessons in teamwork and working as a unit to achieve a mission, whatever it may be.

To get her points across, she referenced a cartoon a friend sent her that effectively illustrates — literally and figuratively — the difference between a manager and a true leader.

“In one panel, there’s a picture of a boss sitting up on a rock with all his employees pulling him,” she recalled. “And then, in the other, there’s a picture of a leader, the one at the front of that rope helping all his people pull that big rock; that’s the kind of leader I am, and I think a lot of it comes from my time with the Guard.

“It’s about not being afraid to do anything that you ask the people you’re surrounded by to do,” she went on. “But I think it’s also about recognizing the qualities of the people around you and being humble enough to say, ‘hey, I don’t know how to do this,’ and allowing those that know how to do it to teach you to do it.”

“In the military, you rely on each other,” she said in conclusion, adding that this mindset has helped enable her to be a driving force in business, long after she was a driving force in Afghanistan.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Veterans in Business

His Time in the Navy Provided an Education on Many Levels

Andrew Anderlonis says his time in the Navy helped him become an effective, people-oriented leader.

Andrew Anderlonis laughed as he noted that one of the Navy’s better selling points is that, no matter where you’re stationed, you’re certain to be close to be a beach.

And that was certainly the case when he was assigned to the destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69), which was based in San Diego; there are lots of fine beaches there.

But Anderlonis said he didn’t join the Navy to sit in the sun. No, he did so to get an education — in every sense of that term.

Indeed, through the Navy, he was awarded a full scholarship to attend George Washington University, earning degrees in international business and management information systems. But that’s just one aspect of the education he received. Later, serving on the Milius and then the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, he was put in situations where he could lead people, develop management skills, test himself, and grow as an individual.

And he credits those experiences — everything from work on nuclear reactors to missions to thwart pirates in the Middle East — with helping him become an effective, people-oriented leader at Rediker Software, which he now serves as president.

“I call my time in the Navy the ultimate leadership experience,” he told BusinessWest. “The experience that the Navy gave me, from an early stage, right out of college, put me into some really tough, really challenging situations that helped build my confidence, helped build my humility, and helped make me the kind of manager I am today.

“There’s different styles of leader out there,” he went on. “Through the Navy, I found out I was a people-first person. Taking care of people, taking care of the sailors under me really became how I was successful. I knew that if I took care of them, they would do their jobs and take care of me, and thus we would accomplish the mission — and I carry a lot of that same methodology to how I lead and manage today.”

“I call my time in the Navy the ultimate leadership experience.”

Before elaborating, Anderlonis flashed back a few decades to his decision to commit to the Navy.

As he noted earlier, this was, as they say in the military, a tactical decision. He knew that beyond a beach — somewhere — the Navy would help provide him with both a college education and invaluable work and life experience.

And it delivered all that and more.

“The Navy was really appealing to me, and I liked the opportunities that it offered — you’re given a lot of responsibility as soon as you graduate, especially as an officer,” he recalled, adding that, after graduating from the ROTC program as a midshipman, he started his career on the Milius, a guided-missile destroyer.

There, he wore a large number of hats, as he put it; he served as a gunnery officer, a legal officer, and was the ‘vessel-boarding, search-and-seizure officer.’

After two years in San Diego, he moved on to Charleston, S.C. for a year and switched gears, becoming a nuclear engineering officer. He earned his qualification to work onboard an aircraft carrier, and was later assigned to one of the reactors on the George H.W. Bush.

All told, he served more than five years of active duty that included those two ship tours and several deployments, including (while on the Milius) some anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and in the central and southern Arabian Gulf, previously known as the Persian Gulf.

“I was the vessel-boarding, search-and-seizure officer … I had an 18-person crew that was under me,” he recalled. “We would board ships and look for pirates; I was out there in my desert camos climbing up the side of tankers.”

Those were among the myriad experiences that, in total, helped prepare Anderlonis for his transition to the business world, specifically Rediker Software, a venture started by his wife’s father that specializes in integrated school-management systems.

And that preparation involved everything from technology and how to make the most of it, to management and how to handle just about anything that can be thrown at the leader of a small business.

Elaborating, he returned to that mindset, or philosophy, of being a people-oriented leader, a methodology that has worked at Rediker in the same way it did on the George H.W. Bush.

“I make sure that I take care of them,” he said, referring to his team of 95 employees. “I make sure their needs are met and that they’re happy. And I know that, in the end, they’ll take care of me and work as a team to accomplish the business objectives that we’ve laid as we move forward.”

Another tangible benefit from his years in the Navy, he said, is how it has helped him with the broad realm of crisis management and what falls into that category of ‘crisis.’

“It puts everything into perspective when you’re in a war zone and there are actual casualties or something happens and your training kicks in,” he explained. “That’s helped me decide here what’s a true emergency and what’s not. It’s also helping me to maintain a level head and manage stress. And while others are panicking or might be having a really difficult day, I’m able to help them keep a level platform and get through what they might be going through from a leadership perspective.

“At a young age, I was put in a lot of stressful situations, and there were a lot of challenging moments early in my career,” he went on. “And I think those really helped define who I am as a manager and a leader today.”

Meanwhile, there was certainly some beach time in the Navy as well, especially in San Diego. But that’s another story.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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