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Help for the self-employed soldiers

Guard members get aid on staying afloat

Ivan Menard of the Vermont National Guard, working on a summer cottage with Kurtis Mellett and Macneil, was unaware of government aid for small-business owners. He sold the equipment he used in his landscaping business when he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2003. Ivan Menard of the Vermont National Guard, working on a summer cottage with Kurtis Mellett and Macneil, was unaware of government aid for small-business owners. He sold the equipment he used in his landscaping business when he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2003. (CALEB KENNA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

Before Lieutenant Mark Aldrich of the Massachusetts National Guard was deployed to Iraq for 15 months, his military commanders made sure he had a living will. They checked to see that someone would look after his children in case his wife became ill. They made certain all his vaccinations were up to date.

But no one advised him what to do about his business.

While the father of two from Amesbury was dodging roadside bombs in Iraq, his Massachusetts-based consultancy firm for the gambling industry accumulated $80,000 in debt and was eventually taken over by a business partner. When Aldrich returned in 2005, he joined thousands of self-employed members of the National Guard and reservists who did not know how to keep their companies afloat while they were deployed and whose businesses have faltered or collapsed.

This year, Aldrich, in his spare time, launched a nonprofit support group designed to offer financial advice to self-employed citizen-soldiers. His organization, the Veterans Business Group, is one of several such agencies that have sprung up recently in New England. They represent a fledgling effort by service members and business leaders to fill the gap left by a military that tries to address the burden deployment places on the troops' family life and mental health but has failed to make a concerted effort to preempt and solve the business needs of self-employed National Guard members and reservists.

"They have a pretty good plan set up in case something happens to you as far as your family is concerned, but there's nothing about business," said Aldrich, who now works as a sales manager for a phone book publisher.

Federal law protects members of the military who are employed by someone else from losing their jobs while they are deployed. But no such safety net exists for the troops who own their own businesses, said Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Barrett, spokeswoman for Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve, the Defense Department agency that protects the troops' employement. About 5 percent of all 1.1 million members of the National Guard and reserves are self-employed, according to Rick Breitenfeld, a National Guard spokesman.

The government has set up programs to help part-time servicemembers who are self-employed. For example, the Small Business Administration distributes the Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan, for which the servicemembers are only eligible if they apply immediately before deployment or within the first three months after they return.

This summer, the SBA also launched the Patriot Express Pilot Loan Initiative, designed to help veterans and their spouses quickly receive $500,000 in loans.

But information about these resources is scattered and many veterans do not know they exist.

Take Ivan Menard of Hardwick, Vt., who had been running his own landscaping and snow removal business for 15 years before he deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 with the Vermont National Guard.

Menard did not know about government programs and loans for soldiers like him. He sold all of his landscaping equipment before he deployed, and when he returned in 2004, he bought the equipment again, using the money he had saved up.

"I don't think anybody really knew what to do," he said. "It was sort of like starting over anew."

Aldrich hopes to hold a conference in Boston in November to educate troops like Menard about the resources they can tap.

"What you need is to have a trusted source where you can go . . . and say: 'I'm leaving in 10 days, what can I do to protect myself?' " he said. Aldrich wants his organization to become "a predeployment, during deployment, post-deployment business help center."

In Vermont, one of Menard's comrades set up a similar program. Major Randall Gates, who served in Afghanistan with Menard and oversees family programs at the Vermont National Guard, this year launched a series of free workshops for self-employed guard members. He runs the workshops with Mark Blanchard, an adviser at the Vermont Small Business Development Center.

"It's like in that movie: Who're you gonna call?" Blanchard said. "We're the Ghostbusters for this."

So far Gates and Blanchard have conducted two workshops, instructing servicemembers who are about to be deployed how to protect their businesses from falling apart and advising returning veterans about loans and other resources available for them. Only 18 people attended, and Blanchard said, "We don't have big success stories to trot out there."

The men are hoping to hold another workshop after members of the 131st Engineer Company return from Iraq next month.

Groups like Gates's and Blanchard's have referred veterans to SBA programs and other resources that can help finance their businesses. But there is little such groups can do to help bring back a business's clients who have left while the servicemembers were deployed, said Louis J. Celli Jr., a retired Army master sergeant in Boston.

Celli, who runs the Northeast Veterans Business Resource Center, said several servicemembers have asked him for advice after they returned to find their businesses in shambles.

"In most cases they have not been successful" in putting their companies back together, "primarily because of the loss of customer base and loss of capital," he said.

Menard said most of his landscaping clients returned to him after his deployment. But most people who had depended on him for snow removal have found other contractors.

"Winter work, I lost about 70 percent of that. I don't have that back at all," he said.

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