PORTLAND, Maine — Chris Tyll joined the U.S. Navy at 17 and graduated from Annapolis in May 2001 into a peacetime military.
That was soon to change. On Sept. 12, 2011, he reassessed his plans to serve on a cruiser in an aircraft carrier escort. Instead, he signed up for SEAL training.
“It was a rush to do more,” said Tyll, a native of Ubly, Mich.
He served nine years of active duty, with multiple deployments in Iraq, mainly in Anbar Province. He saw friends killed in Fallujah. He fought tribal leaders, and later worked with them, as the “Awakening of Anbar” saw locals reject al Qaeda operatives and work with U.S. forces.
When he finished his last tour in 2009 and got out of the Navy at age 31, he moved his young family to Maine where he had visited when he was younger.
He wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps by starting some sort of business. After his grandfather had returned from World War II, he had invented several machines used in metal fabrication. Tyll wanted to do something entrepreneurial.
“I got out of the military knowing I wanted to be in business for myself — but I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he recalled.
After working as a general contractor for a bit, he came up with the idea of opening a Pat’s Pizza franchise in Portland’s Old Port.
Not yet three years old, the business was packed on a recent weekday. Tyll never worked in restaurants before, but as he discusses his business strategy the strengths of his military training and education are obvious. He talks about how several waitresses also work in the kitchen, enforcing the idea that the workforce is a team, facing “one fight.”
But he has met the challenges that he believes all returning veterans share.
“I’m three years out and I’m not back. I don’t know if I’ll be a different person for the rest of my life,” reflected Tyll. “I faced what I think every vet, in a way, faces: this disconnect with those around you.”
Tyll acknowledges his own success, and is hoping to help other veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through a new program launched by the Portland Regional Chamber: The Portland Veterans Network.
Tyll is chairman of the recently launched network, which focuses on jobs, education, wellness and opportunities. It works with a variety of partner organizations to help unemployed vets access and navigate health care programs and further their education.
It also provides free membership to the Portland Regional Chamber and lets the veterans choose business mentors who will work with them on job skills, and applying their military experience to civilian work, resumes, interviewing and networking. With the chamber membership comes access to more than 200 networking events every year — good opportunities for the vets to find employment.
Tyll said the program is set up to not only help veterans find employment but also to help employers understand what they’re getting in veterans as employees.
“You have teamwork; you have loyalty to something bigger than yourself,” said Tyll.
There are also challenges, such as the ones that Tyll faced. Going from tight-knit platoons of fellow soldiers to the civilian world can give you that sense that no one has your back, Tyll said. Veterans may have attention deficit issues, anxiety, a lack of trust and may make erratic jokes, he said. It comes from living in a state of hypervigilance, facing enemies who aren’t in uniform, so everyone is a potential threat, he said.
The program is only recently launched, but there already are 15 vets participating, said Tyll, and two have found jobs. It started several months ago, when Col. David Sutherland, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Maine to talk about what could be done to help returning veterans, said Godfrey Wood, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber. Maine’s first lady, Ann LePage, invited Wood to meet with the colonel. Wood took Sutherland’s message to the chamber, and the network quickly progressed from a plan to a reality.
Sutherland said he’s seen other similar efforts in other states he’s visited.
“But nothing as aggressive as I’m seeing the effort in Maine,” added Sutherland, who will be the guest speaker at the Portland Regional Chamber’s June 6 Eggs and Issues Breakfast.
The need for community organizations to step up is great, said Sutherland. There have been 2.4 million men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. The unemployment rate for 20- to 28-year-old veterans is at 30 percent, based on recent Department of Labor numbers. In the Portland area, said Wood, there are about 250 veterans of the two wars, with that same 30 percent unemployment rate. The population is growing, and will continue to grow, both men said.
But the opportunities are also great, Sutherland said.
“I believe this generation of veterans is wired to serve. They just need that assistance during transition and reintegration and they’ll thrive,” said Sutherland. “We look to leaders in communities to enable them in establishing networks, creating opportunities that improve their quality of life that’s based on the reintegration trinity of education, meaningful employment and access to healthcare.”
Wood said the goal was to get at least 50 veterans in the program this year. But there’s no cap, and the program can scale up as demand increases, he said.
“We’ll take them all,” said Wood.
The program will be a success, he said, if those vets find work.
“That’s what this is all about — delivering results,” agreed Tyll.
Wood said the Bangor Region and Androscoggin County chambers are interested in replicating Portland’s program, and he saw the potential for a statewide network based on the model.
In many cases, said Sutherland, civilian society doesn’t recognize the training or licensing that members of the military receive through their service. For example, an Air Force electrician may not immediately be able to work as a licensed electrician when discharged from the military.
“The epidemic of disconnection between military and civil society is what leadership in Maine can defeat,” Sutherland said.
He suggested that efforts such as the Portland Veterans Network should work with other organizations such as the Easter Seals, which is a large employer of workers with disabilities.
The No. 1 remedy for dealing with the effects of combat, Sutherland said, referencing a recent RAND Corp. study, is enforcing a sense of community in civilian life.
“The American people know what we are — a military at war, in Iraq, Afghanistan,” said Sutherland. “But they don’t know us as individuals. Taking the pathology out of this and turning it into listening: that’s where the mentorship programs are so strong, and peer-to-peer networks, as well.”
Visit portlandregion.com/content/portland-veterans-network for more information about the Portland Veterans Network.