Rags of Honor is a case study of what job-hungry veterans can do when given a chance.
Mark Doyle saw a problem that made him mad.
Veterans who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan were returning home and not finding jobs. Some were homeless, some just barely making ends meet.
Doyle, a Chicago businessman who has worked for President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, had been in Afghanistan as a private contractor doing forensic accounting work for a U.S. anti-corruption task force. He lived in tents alongside soldiers and saw how hard they worked under the worst of conditions.
“When I came back home, I saw the unemployment rate and the suicide rate among veterans,” Doyle said. “I was driving home one day and I said, ‘I’m going to start a company.’”
Most Read Stories
- Swedish Health’s ambitious Seattle plans involved a developer with a stake in their success VIEW
- Prison escape of Darren Berg, Washington’s ‘Mini Madoff,' is like ‘Shawshank Redemption,' official says
- Video surfaces of Seahawks' top draft pick Malik McDowell's arrest, and it is very NSFW
- Seattle police recommend charging ex-City Council candidate for false reporting in voucher program | Times Watchdog
- Washington state drivers 5th worst in nation — and trending in the wrong direction, new study says
Having admittedly no idea what he was doing, Doyle launched a silk-screening business called Rags of Honor, a company that would be staffed entirely by veterans. Using his own money and relying on equipment donations from a Chicago-area manufacturer, he rented a space and then went to a shelter for homeless veterans and rounded up people looking for work.
They didn’t know anything about silk-screening, and neither did Doyle. But they all figured it out. That was in 2012.
Now Rags of Honor employs seven veterans full time and two part time, with more to come this year. Most of them were homeless and struggling to find work.
Tamika Holyfield served six years in the Navy, two of those years in Afghanistan as a small arms weapons instructor. When she returned to Chicago, she had no job and no place to stay. She wound up living in her car for several months.
“I couldn’t find work and I didn’t have a stable place to live,” Holyfield said. “I was really depressed and I just didn’t know what to do.”
She met Doyle through an employment agency and he hired her immediately. She’s now director of customer service at Rags of Honor.
“There’s nothing like working around veterans who appreciate your hard work,” Holyfield said. “When Mr. Doyle offered me this job, it just changed everything.”
Frank Beamon III was an Army gunner in Afghanistan. He too came back to limited options.
“I was thrown back into life,” he said. “The people who had a support system, they might be OK. But if you had nothing when you left, you come back to nothing.”
Beamon struggled to find a job and a stable place to live. When he got an offer to work at Rags of Honor, he jumped at it, and Doyle gave him a check before he even started so he could get clothes and food. Beamon showed up for work the next morning. That was a year and a half ago and he’s now director of sales.
“You give somebody a chance, you never know what might happen,” Beamon said. “I didn’t need a handout, I needed a hand up.”
Along with running a website that sells shirts and other gear bearing the names and symbols of all branches of the military, Rags of Honor fulfills orders for major companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield, sports teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and all manner of other clients.
The business is growing and Doyle hopes to soon be running two shifts. The Illinois-based aviation services company AAR Corp., which is also a defense contractor, is now a co-owner of the company.
The goal at Rags of Honor is explained nicely by Nicole Lahanis, vice president of sales and marketing and a four-year Army veteran who spent a year in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom as the only female gunner in her company: “I want to grow the business so we can hire more vets. I needed a mission. Now I have one.”
Rags of Honor is more than just a feel-good success story. It’s a case study of what job-hungry veterans can do when given a chance, one that knocks down many of the negative stereotypes that pop up when companies are making hiring decisions.
“We’re dispelling the myth about a skills gap or that these guys have to have already been trained in the specific area you’re hiring for,” Doyle said.
Beamon, the Army gunner, put it this way: “None of us had any experience in silk-screening. We didn’t know anything about how these shirts are made. But we were trained to work hard. We were trained to do our best. We were trained to adapt to any situation. So we did.”
Rags of Honor is a reminder that there are many men and women who served this country honorably who need a chance to get their feet back under them, workers who when given a chance will thrive.
But unemployment among younger veterans continues to run higher than the national average. There are concerns about how the experience they bring to the table will translate in civilian workplaces. And there are concerns about the psychological burdens some veterans carry.
The story of Rags of Honor won’t allay those concerns completely. But I hope it highlights the positives that people with military training and experience bring to the workplace. And I hope it encourages companies to give them a second look.
What they need most, as Lahanis said, is a new mission.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at email@example.com.