Jeremey Chapin suffered two traumatic brain injuries while on duty in Iraq in 2006, and during his subsequent recovery he discovered a passion for woodworking.
"A friend of mine noticed I was getting a little depressed and wanted to get me out and about so he said, 'Why don't we go make a pen?'" Chapin said. "And he took me to a woodshop. I thought he was completely insane, but I made my first pen, and I've been hooked ever since."
Now the 32-year-old veteran hopes to turn his passion into a business, and he's spent the last week in Chattanooga attending bootcamp as part of UTC's Veteran Entrepreneurship Program. The program, which is in its second year, aims to equip veterans to start new businesses.
This year, 17 veterans are going through the program, which starts with five weeks of online course work before the weeklong business bootcamp in Chattanooga. After bootcamp, vets return home and continue to receive mentoring and support for another 10 months.
"We try to expose them to every aspect of what it means to be an entrepreneur," said Robert Dooley, dean of the UTC College of Business.
Chapin hopes to create and sell a wide variety of wooden products -- from pens to bar taps to bowls. He wants to bring back a made-to-last mentality in a world of use-it-and-toss-it products. He spends at least a half-hour carving each pen, and each retails for at least $40.
He walked into bootcamp this week thinking he'd open his business, Woodworks, in three to six months. But then he received his first four orders -- for a total of about 400 pens.
"This program has opened the door," he said. "I wish every vet who has the slightest idea of opening a business would apply for this program. It is the biggest life-changer."
This year's veterans converged on Chattanooga from all over the United States, flying in from California, Utah, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee. Chapin hails from Arizona.
That's a good sign, Dooley said, especially since last year's participants were mostly local. He hopes to continue to grow the program, which costs about $80,000 to put on each year and is funded by private donors. It's free for veterans to participate.
The geographical range of participants is one of several changes Dooley made after the inaugural program. Based on feedback from last year's vets, organizers tweaked the curriculum to include more workshops and instead of assigning one veteran to one mentor, they created a bullpen of experts to allow the mentoring relationships to develop more naturally, Dooley said.
One graduate from last year, Bret Mouldenhauer, has already found a market for his unique approach to medical care for top-flight athletes. Mouldenhauer, a licensed acupuncturist, has seven world class athletes under his care and treats each athlete like a Formula One car, he said last year.
Even seven years after his injury, Chapin is still on a five-pill-a-day regimen of pain management meds to combat his chronic migraines. And as he heads back to Arizona, he knows he has a ton of work to do.
"I understood the basic concept of business, but I didn't realize how intense a small-business owner had to be and how much they had to live eat and sleep business," he said.
But, he added, he's not scared.
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at email@example.com or 423-757-6525.