By Tom Still

MADISON – The “Greatest Generation” that won World War II wasn’t just great because of what they did while in uniform. When they returned from military service, they also sparked a peacetime economic boom that still echoes today.

Nearly half of World War II veterans who came home in the 1940s started their own businesses. Today, veterans returning from the Middle East and other deployments in a still-dangerous world are aiming for a startup boom of their own.

This month’s launch of Bunker Labs in Madison, the creation of the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce in Milwaukee and the introduction of the Veterans Entrepreneurial Transition Act of 2015 in Congress are examples of efforts to help returning vets find a job – often by creating their own.

And why not? Most veterans are disciplined, accustomed to hard work and long hours, trained to perform under pressure and equipped with specific skills that usually translate well to the private sector.

Perhaps that is why veterans own 9 percent of businesses in America, according to U.S. Census Bureau and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation figures. Veteran-owned businesses also generate $1.2 trillion in receipts and employ 5.8 million workers.

Estimates today are that 25 percent of post 9/11 vets would like to start their own business but only a quarter of them have the resources to do so, according to Todd Connor, co-founder of Bunker Labs. He spoke at the Nov. 10 Madison opening.

Bunker Labs is a national organization that selected Madison for its latest outpost, in part because the city has a strong entrepreneurial footprint. Bunker Labs provides a national network for its members, helping an agribusiness company to move to Wisconsin if the state is a better fit or a Wisconsin entrepreneur to get connected to Silicon Valley if that’s what works.

Connor said Wisconsin will likely shine within such a network because the state offers a mix of startup sectors, from the life sciences to business services to information technology.

Started in August by a former soldier who served in Afghanistan, the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce has signed up 19 members so far, including veteran-owned and veteran-friendly businesses. It will also offer hands-on assistance to returning vets.

In Wisconsin, veterans are finding jobs at an impressive rate. Speaking at the Bunker Labs launch, Gov. Scott Walker noted the state’s low veteran unemployment rate of 4.1 percent. That’s better than the state’s overall jobless rate of 4.3 percent.

Some national and state initiatives are pending that could help more vets to become ‘treps.

The Veterans Entrepreneurial Transition Act of 2015 would give some veterans access to money in the GI Bill – funding traditionally used for tuition — as seed money to start businesses. The legislation was unanimously approved by the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee; floor action in both houses of Congress is pending.

The VET Act proposes a three-year pilot program – overseen by the U.S. Small Business Administration – that would allow veterans to utilize their G.I. Bill benefit to start a business or purchase an existing business or franchise. To improve their chances of success, veterans would be required to complete an SBA-approved entrepreneurial training program and develop an SBA-approved business plan among other milestones.

“Because many veterans dream of owning a business rather than returning to the classroom, it’s common sense to give them a choice with how they can use their earned G.I. Bill benefit,” said U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., one of the bill’s main authors.

According to a recent Bunker Labs survey, 90 percent of the veterans who responded said they would like to use their G.I. Bill benefit to start a small business. Nearly 95 percent said they would complete an entrepreneurial training program to do so.

In Wisconsin, a bill has been introduced to create a veterans employment and entrepreneurship program by recasting an existing employment grant program. If the bill is passed, the state Department of Veterans Affairs would be able to make grants to qualified groups to “improve employment outcomes for veterans” in Wisconsin, including assisting veteran entrepreneurs.

As the state moves from Veterans’ Day to the holidays, it is a time to salute the veterans who have helped to protect us – and to wish them luck as many set out on their next great adventure … becoming entrepreneurs.