By Tom Still

LA CROSSE – Life has never been easy for Donald J. Weber. He struggled to graduate from high school and joined the U.S. Marines Corps within days, spending more than a year in Vietnam as a rifleman. His decorated return from service led to nothing more than odd jobs – as well as some tough times living on the streets – before he discovered his true talent.

Don Weber likes to start and build companies.

He wasn’t very good at it at first, even losing his family’s home after one failure. However, he learned from his mistakes and launched Logistics Health Inc. in 1999 out of his zeal to address the medical readiness needs of military personnel – from physical exams to dental work and more.

Today, Logistics Health designs, launches and manages health and wellness programs for the Department of Defense and other clients through a national network of about 27,000 providers. It grew from scratch to 2,056 employees today and has anchored the renaissance of downtown La Crosse.

Weber told his compelling story of struggle, failure and success April 19 in one of the three sparkling buildings that make up the Logistics Health riverfront campus. His audience: Military veterans, like himself, who want to become entrepreneurs.

His advice was simple enough: Follow your passion, work hard, don’t give up and don’t be afraid to fail.

“I learned far more from my failures than my successes,” said Weber, who has started 10 companies over time.

Weber also urged the veterans to fall back on what they learned during their time in service, such as teamwork, discipline and staying true to their mission.

His remarks came at the first in a series of “Muster Across Wisconsin” events produced by Bunker Labs Wisconsin in concert with the UW Small Business Development Centers and the Wisconsin Technology Council. In addition to Weber’s talk, the La Crosse event featured seminars on the basics of building a business, finding the right resources and attracting capital. Future “Muster Across Wisconsin” events will follow similar outlines.

Bunker Labs Wisconsin was recently awarded a grant from the state Department of Veterans Affairs to provide programming, mentoring and networking for veterans who want to start businesses. It’s part of a national Bunker Labs effort to work with veterans through chapters in 15 cities, including Madison.

For many veterans, it’s a program that comes at the right time.

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.

About 25 percent of post 9/11 vets would like to start their own business, based on national surveys, but only a quarter of them have the resources to do so. With tens of thousands of military veterans set to re-enter the workforce, making their own job is an option for many.

Nearly 90 percent of the veterans who responded to a Bunker Labs survey 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.

It’s a natural fit for many. 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.

Not every returning veteran will be the next Don Weber, but many have earned the chance to try. At a time when Wisconsin needs as many startups and talented workers as it can find, returning veterans will provide part of the solution.