“There’s something very therapeutic about being our on the ocean with the salt water running through your hair and your veins,” observed U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1C Marc Harrell of Niantic, Connecticut. “My whole idea is to get guys and gals who served our country out there on the water and let them experience that through hard work, and through understanding how shellfish grow and how kelp is developed, I can be a part of their transition to a new life after combat.”
And now Harrell is about to launch a new career on the water, following more than a decade of Coast Guard service that encompassed tours of duty at sea, in the air and on shore, most recently as a C-130 aircraft crewmember at the International Ice Patrol in New London, Connecticut. Harrell applied to Work Vessels for Vets, Inc., a Mystic-based charity that has equipped more than 2,000 veteran-owned businesses in all 50 states with tools and equipment valued at $3 million.
“I am looking for help starting a one-of-a-kind business to develop an oyster farm to be run by a veteran for veterans,” said Harrell. “I have been spending my off-hours for the last five years working with Jim Markow at the Noank Aquaculture Co-Operative, learning the trade, developing a viable plan, and finding a passion for growing oysters. I used to track sea ice and icebergs in the North Atlantic for a couple of weeks at a time, and when I’d come back home to Niantic, or had a day off, I’d spend time at the oyster farm. The bug got in my system and I couldn’t let it go.”
Harrell added that the skills required to become a successful oyster farmer are the same practical skills learned in the military – self-reliance, a strong work ethic, purpose and leadership. He believes that aquaculture therapy and time on the water will offer veterans new training and employment opportunities, as well as therapeutic experiences after combat. Encouraged by his experience with Marlow and Norm Bloom & Sons Oysters of Norwalk, Connecticut, who are donating dock space and logistical help, Harrell decided to start his own business oystering and kelp farming.
Finding a seaworthy vessel with the size and specifications for commercial fishing was a daunting task for Work Vessels for Vets. “We were thrilled when Nancy Bulkeley of Dominion Energy/Millstone Power Station in Waterford, Connecticut called to offer to donate their research vessel Dominion I,” said Cathy Cook, Executive Director of the charity. “We have just the applicant. His business plan was ready, but we had no idea where we could find or afford the large vessel he needed. This is a wonderful match! The fully equipped vessel is valued in excess of $38,000, which represents an amazing in-kind gift to Work Vessels for Vets, a 501-c-3 public charity.”
“Dominion Energy has a long history of supporting veterans and veteran charities,” said Don Landers, supervisor of the Millstone Power Station Environmental Lab. Nearly six million customers in 19 states energize their homes and businesses with electricity or natural gas from Dominion Energy (NYSE: D). Locally, Dominion Energy owns and operates the Millstone Power Station in Waterford, Connecticut.
Landers said everyone at Millstone was delighted to know Dominion I would have a new life on local waters. “For the past four decades, this boat has supported our mission of compliance and environmental stewardship by monitoring local marine life around Millstone,” he said. “It’s an honor to be able to pass it on to a veteran who will continue to use it on Long Island Sound and improve the lives of other veterans by teaching them skills for new careers in the sustainable aquaculture of shellfish and seaweed.”
Work Vessels for Vets, Inc. was started in 2008 when John Niekrash, a lobsterman in Noank, Connecticut, heard the story of a U.S. Marine Reservist who had been served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and been severely injured. John decided that his boat that had served him well for seventeen years should go to someone who had served his country. The organization’s first “vessel,” Krasher I, was refurbished and donated to the Reservist, who started a commercial clamming operation in Narragansett Bay, and a legacy was born.
In the following 11 years, this unique non-profit has sent $3 million in equipment to 2,000 veteran-entrepreneurs in all 50 states. Applications are received on a rolling basis, and awards are made throughout the year. Awardees are expected to follow their business plans, communicate with their mentors, and “pay it forward” by hiring fellow veterans when they are ready. Work Vessels for Vets receives ongoing reports from mentors as they monitor progress and assist new entrepreneurs as they work through their first year in business.
“We buy the weirdest stuff,” noted Cook. “This summer, I shipped a large sheet metal brake to Alaska for a 100% disabled vet and his aircraft repair shop, and a $30,000 adapted forklift for a California commercial beekeeper who lost both legs in an IED explosion on his fifth tour. I learned what a pig auger is, and sent one to a Montana sheep ranch run by two brothers who served in the Army.”
Other recent unique awards include a new 65HP John Deere tractor adapted for a double amputee Marine in Georgia; a $40,000 long-arm computer design quilting machine adapted for a Florida amputee’s “One Foot Quilting” business; livestock fencing and a computerized incubator for a triple amputee in China Spring, Texas; industrial sewing machine and SawStop table saw for an injured Air Force vet who restores antique cars in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and $8000 in jewelry-making tools for an Army amputee in San Antonio, Texas for her growing jewelry design business. Each of these veterans has been able to move on after combat injuries to see a bright future as a business owner. They just needed that critical “vessel” to get started.
Work Vessels for Vets is completely volunteer-run, enabling 99% of all donations to provide direct services to returning veterans seeking self-employment following combat injury. This commitment is recognized with the highest national ratings, including status as a Top Rated Nonprofit from the GreatNonProfits rating agency; the Better Business Bureau’s Standards for Charity Accountability, and even the coveted Guide Star’s 2019 Top Platinum Stsatus for efficiency and transparency. Funding partners have included Newman’s Own Foundation, Aetna Foundation, Home Depot Foundation and many corporations. Well known musicians have also stepped up to support Work Vessels for Vets. Michael Bolton, a Grammy Award-winner (and Connecticut native), has donated. Joe Walsh, the “Clown Prince of Rock” perhaps best known as a member of The Eagles, promoted the organization at his VETS AID concerts in 2017 and 2018, and Dave Mason, a founding member of Traffic, did the same at earlier concerts.
September is a busy fundraising month for Work Vessels for Vets, starting with Skydive for Vets Jump on Saturday, September 7 in Ellington, CT. Participants will raise pledges for the privilege of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane! For those inclined to stay on the ground, there are two golf events which are donating proceeds to WVFV. The UNICO Club of Avon, CT will host a Scramble Tournament at The Country Club of Farmington on Monday September 16. On Monday, September 30 supporters are invited to join Enterprise Builders at the Lake of Isles golf course at Foxwoods in Ledyard, CT. If you want to dance, come to WVFV’s annual Hand Up for Vets Oldies Dance on Saturday September 21 at Groton Long Point, CT. The website, WVfV.org, has details of these and other upcoming fundraising events.
And of course, donations are always needed to accommodate a long waiting list. To donate or apply, visit
WorkVesselsForVets.org/donate. Funds are accepted by credit card with no extra charges via PayPal. Giving Program or checks may be sent to Work Vessels for Vets, Inc. P.O. Box 215, West Mystic, CT 06388. For additional information, contact WVFV at email@example.com. ■
Equipping veteran-entrepreneurs for success