He’s Still Climbing
This Veteran Goes to the Front Lines — of Home HealthcareThere have been a number of datelines attached to news stories involving Nicholas Colgin.
Many of them originated in the Tagab Valley in eastern Afghanistan, where, as a combat medic serving in Bravo Company for the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, he saved the life of a French soldier shot in the head while facing enemy fire himself, an act of bravery that earned him the Bronze Star. It was also while serving in that remote region that others in his squad saved 42 Afghanis from a flooding river, an experience that he believes gave additional validation to his time serving in that conflict.
Later, though, there were stories out of Washington, first when he went to speak before Congress on the difficulties many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were experiencing as they sought gainful employment, and later when he was mentioned in speeches given by President Obama that outlined steps to combat the high jobless rates among what are known as the ‘9/11 generation’ of veterans.
Referencing Colgin, who, despite those actions that earned him a medal, couldn’t get a job as an EMT in Wyoming because he lacked the proper certification, the president said, “that isn’t right, and it doesn’t make sense — not for our veterans, not for the strength of our country. If you can save a life in Afghanistan, you can save a life in an ambulance in Wyoming.”
Fast-forward roughly two years from that speech in a former gun factory at the Washington Navy Yard, and the latest dateline for news on Colgin is, improbably, Springfield, Mass. Indeed, he’s not in an ambulance, nor in Wyoming, but instead in one of the many corner offices on the 12th floor of 1350 Main St., also known as One Financial Plaza. There, a map covering more than half of one wall identifies his territory — all of Western Mass. and some of Northern Conn. — as a franchisee for a national chain called Right at Home, which, as the name suggests, is a home-care agency.
There are a number of pushpins now on that map. They identify major healthcare providers in the Greater Springfield area as potential partners of sorts as Colgin looks to obtain market share in what is becoming a crowded playing field for home-care services.
Cultivating such relationships is now a major part of Colgin’s job description, although he noted quickly that there are many pressing issues as his gets this business off the ground, from interviewing candidates for caregiver positions to hiring an operations staff to staging an open house.
“We’ve had more than 300 applications in the past two or three weeks,” he noted, adding that the process of screening these candidates is ongoing. “They go through orientation, and we put a lot of time and investment into training to make sure we’re not sending someone into a person’s home that we wouldn’t let in our own grandmother’s home or parent’s home.”
How and where this entrepreneurial gambit came to be is an intriguing saga, one that says a lot about this determined individual, who overcame a number of injuries himself to put his name — which at one time he had trouble spelling because of a traumatic brain injury, or what those who’ve suffered one call a TBI — and the title ‘owner’ on his current business card.
Summing it all up, he said it has to do with mountains, or, more specifically, with climbing, and the need to keep doing it.
Elaborating, he divided returning veterans (and people in general) into three categories: ‘quitters’ — those who give in to their frustrations and often become substance abusers; ‘campers’ — individuals who come home and “relax for a while” (something he admits he did to some extent); and ‘climbers’ — those who “just keep climbing.”
“I decided I was going to be a climber,” he said, “and do it literally by taking blind people up mountains, and more figuratively by finding the next goal in life.”
For this issue and its focus on the business of aging, BusinessWest talked at length with Colgin, who has gone from being the face of unemployment among returning veterans to an individual now employing others in a venture with which he feels, well, right at home.
In the Line of Fire
Colgin was in the Peruvian Andes late last month, leading a team of 12 disabled veterans up 18,000-foot Mount Mariposa, when he received word that his franchise had secured the license necessary to operate in Massachusetts.
The juxtaposition of those happenings adds some poignancy to Colgin’s remarks about climbing, and also to the many facets of his life and the ways he measures success.
“I was going to do one last guiding trip before opening the business,” he explained. I submit the application and hop on a plane to Peru. I get one day in, and our application has been approved. It was a tricky place to be in — I’m in Peru, and now my business is open, and I’ve got to get back and hire employees.
“It’s been quite a journey, and this part of it is really just getting started,” he went on, before venturing back to another dateline in his life, the first.
That would be Chesterfield, Va., a small community not far from Richmond, where he spent several generally unhappy and challenging years.
His mother wound up in prison, and his father, with only a sixth-grade education, struggled to earn a living. Colgin said he was essentially raised by his grandmother, and by his senior year in high school, he was in many ways rudderless. It was a friend bent on joining the Army who provided inspiration and a compass point, but Colgin still had no idea what to do with himself — in the military or after his tour of duty was over.
“I signed on as a medic,” he said, following those words with a pause and shrug as if to indicate there was no profound reason for that choice. “I had never done anything in healthcare … when I went to sign up, I didn’t really know much about the military other than what you see in movies. I had just seen Black Hawk Down, and I said to them, ‘I want to be one of those guys.’
“They chuckled at me and said, ‘that’s not really a job,’” he went on. “They said, ‘you’re pretty smart … you can be this, or this, or maybe a medic.’ I said, ‘I’ll be a medic — that sounds like a job people really look up to.’”
He would eventually find out just how off he was in that reasoning — at least when it came to finding a job a few years later.
Fast-forwarding a little, Colgin passed the six-month training course to become a medic; two-thirds of those in his class did not. He worked in several facilities stateside, teaching medical classes, and was set to get out of the military without being deployed, but wound up volunteering for an assignment. “I figured, we’re at war; I might as well do my part,” he said, adding that a deployment he thought would last six months to a year instead stretched to 15 months.
He called it the “quintessential war experience,” one that took place mostly at Firebase Morales-Frazier. The highlight of his tour, if one could call it that, came in 2007 when he went to the aid of a French soldier hit by Taliban fire. The two were pinned down for about three hours, under constant fire, while Colgin administered care credited with saving the man’s life.
Colgin has several scattered memories of that experience, everything from being able to put whatever French he managed to retain from high-school classes to good use, to his own emotions as he offered care and counseling to the wounded soldier.
“You’re in Afghanistan, you’re getting shot at, people are getting blown up … you’re treating these people day in and day out, but you don’t really get scared; you just say, ‘this is just a job, this is what I’m here to do, treat it as a professional situation,’” he recalled. “But then I remember taking care of him. We’re in a small vehicle finally getting out of there, and his legs are on mine. I’m trying to tell him everything’s going to be all right. I was saying it confidently, but my legs just wouldn’t stop shaking, because I didn’t know if he was going to be all right. But I knew if he wasn’t going to be all right, it was not going to be because I slacked on my job and didn’t do all I could.”
Just a few months later, Colgin was driving a Humvee — something medics don’t often do, but he felt compelled to take his turn behind the wheel — when it took a glancing blow from a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG. He said his head hit something, probably the steering wheel or windshield, breaking his nose and giving him what he called a “concussion of sorts.”
“One side of my body was numb, and I remember thinking that something wasn’t right,” he recalled. “We didn’t really know a lot about traumatic brain injuries at the time. I came home, had a lot of surgeries on my face — they rebuilt my nose — and needed a lot of treatment.
“I had been this helper overseas,” he went on, “and then I came home and needed help for the first time in my life. I’d never been in that situation before and didn’t really know anyone who had been in that situation before.”
And while he would eventually find some assistance, he essentially helped himself to a new career opportunity and that suite on the 12th floor.
Peaking His Interest
While serving in the Tagab Valley, Colgin, like many veterans, filled the idle time by reading whatever he could get his hands on. And increasingly, this meant books and especially magazines — because they weigh less and are thus easier to carry — about the outdoors.
“I was going to be an outdoor guide,” he said of plans he was making for life after military service, adding quickly that most of these were mapped out before he was injured. “I had never seen these huge mountains in person — I’d never really left the East Coast — and was just fascinated by that country.”
Upon returning home and “healing up” in North Carolina, Colgin would settle in Wyoming to pursue that dream, but he failed in his quest to graduate from the National Outdoor Leadership School due to lingering health problems, physical and mental — he would go back four years later and complete the program, though — and eventually shifted his career aspirations to healthcare, only to find more frustration.
“I had provided medical care in extreme situations — I’d saved someone who was shot in the head while I was getting shot at myself, in the middle of Afghanistan with limited resources — so I figured I shouldn’t have any problem doing emergency medicine, such as work as an EMT,” he told BusinessWest. “Unfortunately, I was wrong.
“And this is an issue that many people in the military are facing and that they’ve just started addressing in the past few years,” he went on. “Basically, you’re trained to do a job in the military, and you can do it in the military, but the certifications do not transfer to the civilian sector. I was trained as an EMT basic, sent to Afghanistan. I’m treating people who were shot in the head, I’m giving IVs and administering medications — and you can’t do that stateside.”
Those who drive trucks and service vehicles in the military face similar roadblocks, he said, adding that thousands of individuals have struggled with the task of turning experience with the armed forces into a job back home.
And this was the message Colgin wanted to bring to elected leaders and the civilian population as the dateline for his story shifted to Washington in mid-2011.
As a representative with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), he spoke before Congress on his frustrations with finding employment in what he considered his chosen field, and made it clear that he was not alone in this predicament.
His comments caught the attention of many groups and individuals, including the commander in chief.
“I remember I showed up to work one day — I was interning for the IAVA — and someone said to me, ‘the White House called for you,’” he told BusinessWest. “That’s not something you hear all the time, and I thought they were joking with me, but they were serious.
“I called them back, and they told me the president was considering telling my story in a speech the next day,” he went on. “They weren’t sure he was going to tell it, but I had to get to D.C. I got a haircut, grabbed my suit, and hopped on a train to Washington.”
After the president’s speech, Colgin found himself in demand — with the media, at least. He did appearances on CNN, the Rachael Maddow Show, the CBS Early Show, and others, becoming adept at live interviews. This face time with the public brought him some job offers — “although not as many as you might expect with the president telling your story” — and eventually he took one, working as membership coordinator with the IAVA, and resettled in Manhattan.
That island is worlds away from Chesterfield, Va. in every respect imaginable, and Colgin liked being an advocate for veterans, working with Congress, and getting plenty of coverage in the media. But something was missing from the equation.
Actually, two things.
The first was an entrepreneurial venture that he could call his own, and the second was what he called “a community in the true sense of the word, a place where I could rest my head, then get up and really get involved in making a difference.”
He would eventually find both in Springfield.
Recalling the chain of events that led to his grand opening nearly a month ago, Colgin started with his decision to “step back,” as he put it, and take a sabbatical from his job with the IAVA. He took this opportunity to do some of the outdoor work he’d started dreaming about in Afghanistan, and eventually made acquaintances with Eric Weihenmayer, the first blind man to scale Mount Everest.
“He and I became good friends, and I ended up picking up a lot of skills to guide individuals up mountains and in the back country,” he recalled. “It was a great experience … I started guiding blind people up mountains. I came back to New York after my sabbatical and realized I had to make a change in my life.”
Coincidentally, he attended what he called a “business boot camp for veterans” in Boston, an intense, three-week program conducted in conjunction with Harvard that helped him discover latent entrepreneurial instincts and drive.
“I realized that what was inside me was stronger than anything in my way,” he told BusinessWest. “I realized that I could open a business; I left and started looking for investors.”
As that search for financial backing commenced, so, too, did the process of choosing what kind of business to get into, he went on, adding that he soon concluded that he would like to do something healthcare-related, and something that would make a difference in peoples’ lives. Discussions with a consultant specializing in linking individuals with franchise opportunities narrowed the search to a few national chains, and eventually to Right at Home, an Omaha, Neb.-based enterprise launched in 1995 that by that time had facilities in more than 40 states as well as in the United Kingdom, Brazil, China, and Canada.
It was not, however, doing business in Western Mass., and Colgin, with $250,000 from some investors, decided to seize that opportunity.
“It was just me and the dog, and I could go anywhere and do anything,” he said, referring to his English pointer, Dixie, whom he described as his rock. “I wanted to stay on the East Coast, and started looking at places and scheduling visits. I ended up coming to Springfield, and it looked like a place where I could put down roots. I moved around a lot with the military and never really had a family growing up, but when I came here, I got a sense that this was a place where I could grow.”
Colgin acknowledged that there is considerable competition within the growing home-care industry and that he has a lot to learn as he joins that crowded field of players. But he believes he has the basic ingredients to reach his goals, which he admits are still being set.
“The language of healthcare is pretty universal, and caring is pretty universal as well; if you can care for Afghanistan locals in the middle of a war, you can take care of anyone in the world,” he said, adding that Right at Home has a proven model and track record for success that he believes he can build on. “I care about helping people realize their dreams, and I care about doing the right thing, and at the end of the day, that’s what this is all about.
“They’re extremely innovative,” he said of the chain. “They have great brand management and amazing quality.”
On a Grand Scale
Based on all that has happened in his life since those initial, awkward discussions with Army recruiters nearly a decade ago, it would be logical to assume that Springfield probably won’t be the last dateline for news stories about Colgin.
As he said, he’s a climber, and he doesn’t intend to stop doing that.
For now, though, the climb has reached Western Mass. and a critical juncture in his career, and there are immediate goals right ahead of him.
The plan is to keep reaching higher — in every aspect of that phrase — but that’s something Colgin has been doing his entire life.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]