Military-to-Civilian Transition Success Story: From War Zone to Board Room
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Dawn Halfaker gave her right arm for her country.
In June 2004, Halfaker, an Army captain MP, lost her arm during a squad patrol in Baqubah, Iraq, when rocket-propelled grenades tore into the front and down the right side of her humvee. She woke up 2- months later in Walter Reed Army Medical Center from a medically-induced coma. Like many other wounded warriors, Halfaker started the long recovery and self-evaluation process on what to do next with her life.
"I really wanted to figure out what was going to give me the ability to stay involved and part of the mission. I did tons of job interviews and wanted to see what was out there. But the more I got out and interviewed, the more it felt like it wasn't right and not finding anything I was passionate about," she recalls.
But then lightning struck. Halfaker accepted an offer from a former colonel to be a consultant for the Defense Research Project Agency. That led to other jobs ... which led to the hiring of veterans with specialized skills ... which led to the startup of Halfaker and Associates LLC in January 2006 ... which leads to today.
It's 3-1/2 years later, and Halfaker's business is doing so well that the company has 110 employees and is currently hiring military-experienced people in Washington, D.C.; northern Virginia; and Fort Knox, Ky. The non-flinching competitive edge her team brings to the government contract business assures that trend will continue, she says.
So what are some of Halfaker's secrets to success? How did she get herself going again after her personal tragedy seemed to kill her dream of a full military career? We sat down with her for a Q&A to unearth the answers...
CJN: First, let's talk about your company and your vision for it ... Would you please summarize for our readers your business objectives, both for the operation as a whole and for the employees who work for you?
Halfaker: We really want to have an impact and stay connected with the military mission, and we really want to contribute to our national defense. We want to continue our military service and pull together the values of the military culture. A lot of us bring that background, so the goal is to fuse it together and create a company with meaning and purpose and passion and carries that into the day-to-day work in national security.
CJN: What was the inspiration for starting this company, and did it begin while you were in the Army or as you were recovering from your injuries?
Halfaker: I guess the story behind the 'a ha!' moment was when I realized that ... I was losing my career and military family. I knew and wasn't willing to let it go and wasn't willing to let go of what I'd been working towards. I realized quickly in talking to comrades that a lot of others felt the same way - they were getting over their injuries and putting life into service for their country, and they just found it so hard. I thought I'd like to start something that continues to give them the ability to be part of that - the mission and the people still over there, the war fighters.
CJN: How has your wartime experience affected your outlook regarding the hiring of injured war veterans?
Halfaker: Immediately when I started the company, I wanted other wounded warriors. This opportunity for me was my life and helped me move on with my life and get my sense of purpose back. A lot of other wounded veterans were struggling to do that. They didn't know what they'd be able to do. I thought, 'If I could do it, other people could do it.' Just getting people back into the workplace was the most important thing we could do as contributing members. Their experience is so rich, and they can overcome challenges. These are the types of people I want in my organization. For me, there's a direct connection, and I know what they're going through. I know how hard the transition is and getting them plugged in. Over 65 percent of my workforce is veterans, and of those, half are service-disabled.
CJN: What do you look for in people you hire? What types of qualities makeup your employment force, and what types of skills should applicants possess when they apply?
Halfaker: I essentially look for people with potential, work ethic and are fairly computer savvy. One thing we're finding is that everything needs an IT component. We want people to stand out and integrate into any IT environment. That gives us our competitive edge. I think the majority of the jobs require degrees based on the government requirements, and positions that don't require degrees are high-level technical analytic jobs. About half of employees have security clearances.
CJN: I understand you are a West Point graduate as well. What did you study?
Halfaker: I studied Spanish and Portuguese, and had an engineering minor in computer science. I graduated in 2001 and exited the Army as a captain.
CJN: What was it like being a woman on that campus ... and then subsequently, becoming a woman officer?
Halfaker: I think it's difficult to be a minority wherever you are. I didn't have big problems, but women are certainly under the microscope. Less of you stands out. You work harder to show you're as capable of doing things. It was challenging in that regard, but I was blessed to be on the basketball team at West Point and have a sport and a good support group. I never had any issues as an officer. I had more male soldiers than I did female but they were all great. We try to hire women and minorities, but having a good dynamic and balance is the most important thing. I can't specifically target women, but we're doing pretty well right now with keeping that balance!
CJN: Finally, what is your personal outlook for your company's future? What are your goals and dreams for this enterprise ... and for yourself?
Halfaker: I really would like to develop a reputation as a bona fide solutions provider. I just want the company's name to be synonymous with the things we stand for in terms of passion, responsiveness to client needs, our capability to solve complex problems. We just want to be known as someone that does their job well and with passion and serve because that's what we want to do. Down the road, I want to go into public service.
Freelancer Heidi Russell Rafferty is a reporter with 19 years of experience who writes about employment and business issues.
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