NASHUA — Ed O’Neill was having breakfast at Nancy’s Diner Monday morning with two guys in the crew of Veterans Mowing and Plowing when a light snow started blowing.
“This is just a flurry,” said O’Neill, who added the real snow, the plowable stuff that will mean work for the small company, was coming on Wednesday.
O’Neill, a Vietnam vet, started Veterans Mowing and Plowing back in 2007, after retiring from General Electric.
The small landscaping and plowing company is staffed exclusively with veterans, most of whom are coping with post traumatic stress disorder, a problem O’Neill understands well from his own military service.
Across the table Josh Perusse and Dan Hofmann were digging into heaping plates of eggs, sausage, bacon and home fries. Perusse served two tours in Iraq driving trucks and manning security posts. Hofmann, who served in the Coast Guard, sailed up and down the Atlantic intercepting boatloads of drugs and searching and rescuing people lost at sea.
Perusse and Hofmann are more than just co-workers, they’re neighbors. They both live at Buckingham Place, a transitional apartment complex for homeless vets and their families run by Harbor Homes in Nashua. And both are leaning how best to manage their PTSD.
Working outdoors for Veterans Mowing and Plowing, doing landscaping jobs, building walkways, doing spring and fall clean ups and plowing has been a way back into the civilian workforce.
“It gets these guys back into work mode,” said O’Neill. “And it puts some money in their pockets.”
Although the Veterans Administration is doing more to reach out and treat vets with PTSD, recent numbers show up to 45 percent of the more than 1.6 million post 9/11 vets struggle with the disorder that affects people in different ways and in different degrees.
And the VA is still diagnosing Vietnam vets like O’Neill, who hunkered down for decades and dealt with the problem on his own.
For O’Neill, steady, task-orientated work was a way to manage PTSD. But for many vets, who either don’t understand or don’t want to acknowledge PTSD, depression, isolation, substance abuse, unemployment and homelessness are common problems.
After retiring, O’Neill found that down time and relaxation wasn’t healthy or helpful for him, so he launched Veterans Mowing and Plowing. And he tapped into Harbor Homes’ network of veterans programs to hire vets who were looking for work.
“Ed has been amazing,” said Andrea Reed, program manager of the Homeless Veterans Re-integration grant managed through Harbor Homes. “He takes guys who are really down on their luck and puts them to work.”Reed said she has placed at least a dozen vets with Veterans Mowing and Plowing.
“Ed has been a great on-the-job training resource,” said Reed. “He understands the guys, and has the right combination of push and pull.”
Although O’Neill’s own health problems have since forced him to step down from managing the company, he is still always on the lookout for jobs for and opportunities and involved in mentoring individual vets.
“When I meet a vet who knows how to do something, or has a specific skill, I try to get those jobs. We try to use our jobs as training,” said O’Neill although he acknowledges for many, the jobs will be transitional work rather than careers.
For Perusse, who is now in a medical management degree program at Daniel Webster College, the working with Veterans Mowing and Plowing has been a great resource, and a way to support his wife and three young children.
“I love driving, so that’s the part of the job I like best,” he said. “Working with other veterans is the other good thing.”
O’Neill and all of the vets who work for the company understand and support one another. A common problem among vets with PTSD who are re-entering the workforce is impatience with incompetence and sloppy workmanship. They come from a background where mistakes could have potentially fatal consequences.
“In the workforce, things affect people in different ways,” said O’Neill. “Vets have to learn it’s not a life and death situation.”
Hofmann isn’t sure what direction he wants to go in yet and he has been mulling over O’Neill’s offer to send him for training in pest control, a service that could expand the company’s landscaping work. His Coast Guard training would fit with a job in law enforcement, but that’s not where he wants to go.
“I love working outdoors, it is good, honest work,” he said. He’s also considering launching his own landscaping business, an idea O’Neill fully supports.
“He can turn around and hire other vets,” said O’Neill.
And with an unemployment rate among veterans that runs roughly 10 percent higher than civilian rate of joblessness, there is a need for more vet-friendly employers. Despite all the job fairs, the programs and the PR about hiring a vet, a lot of businesses still seem to pass over resumes and applications from veterans.
Even Veterans Mowing and Plowing struggles in winning bids for commercial jobs, particularly plowing contracts, that would provide steady paychecks for workers.
O’Neill said the lion’s share of those contracts go to the companies and management firms with fleets of trucks. Although the crew at Veterans Mowing and Plowing has a background of military training where everyone learns to work until the job is complete, a lot of commercial work has been elusive.
“People just go with the big-name companies,” said O’Neill.
Still, O’Neill keeps searching for jobs and ways to help vets get back up on their feet. Although it’s tough going at times, the payback has been watching each vet succeed step by step.