For some 250,000 veterans returning to civilian life each year, the transition back to society and the workforce can be bumpy. The usual path is either to go to school or find full-time employment — all while struggling to rejoin a world that may not understand wartime experiences or recognize how valuable military skills translate to the workaday world.

It’s something Steve Buchanan (below, right) knows all too well. After a nine-year stint as an Army infantry officer, including two deployments to Iraq as a strategic planner, the West Point grad found it hard to get a job when he left active duty in 2008. “It wasn’t only because of the downturned economy, but also maybe there was some bias,” he says. “There are perceptions that if you’ve been in combat you have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and that’s just not true.”

His answer: ChooseVets, an online marketplace that connects vets to people who need reliable labor and services, including yardwork, household repairs and moving help.

“We offer a third path for veterans leaving the military — which is the on-demand world somewhere between full-time employment and going to school,” says the recent University of Washington law school and MBA graduate. “Veterans can go to school but still have a part-time job where they set their own hours. Or instead of going straight to full-time work, they can start with ChooseVets while they figure out what they want to do. It can even be a path to entrepreneurship because they’re learning about client interface and how to market themselves.”

Finding a footing

choosevets co-founder steve buchanan in afghanistanMore than half of returning veterans face a period of unemployment in the first 15 months. And while veteran unemployment rates have dropped with the improving economy, post-9/11 vets (those ages 18-34) not only face the highest unemployment rates, well above the national average, but they’re also more likely to be underemployed than non-veterans.

Buchanan’s own transition in 2008 had its share of ups and downs. Recently divorced with two kids, he worked as a consultant for a while before joining the Army Reserve. He deployed again, this time to Afghanistan working in psychological operations.

But after one tour of duty he realized he missed his kids too much and settled in Washington state to be near them. “Part of me couldn’t see myself not being in the military during a time of war, but I’d done three tours,” he says. “It was enough.”

With the help of the GI Bill, Buchanan entered law school at the University of Washington and also pursued his MBA at night. All the while he kept mulling over ways to help vets segue more easily back into non-military employment and reshape the way civilians perceive returning soldiers.

“I was very upset about veteran unemployment and underemployment,” he says. “If you’re a young National Guardsman or Reservist, you’ve been changed from a standard 18-year-old kid to someone who knows how to show up on time, accomplish a task, and do it to their highest level of performance. Many veterans believe there’s going to be a job waiting for them and they’re going to make all this money and be respected for their ability to lead. But often they’re not sure what realm they should be in. So they’re working at Starbucks or a local restaurant and aren’t using their full skill sets.”

While still in school Buchanan started a local moving company and then a cleaning service, both staffed by veterans. But he was encouraged by mentors in UW’s Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship to radically expand his vision, not just geographically but also in terms of the services offered.

Buchanan and his co-founder, Chris Sheppard (a former combat engineer officer in the Marine Corps and fellow University of Washington JD/MBA student), drew up a broader business plan for ChooseVets, found a few investors and launched at the end of 2014.

A new kind of patriotism
When veterans sign up with ChooseVets they create a profile with a photo and bio that lists their skills, availability and hourly fee. “People who hire them can see who’s coming to the door and know they’re trustworthy,” says Buchanan. “From the veterans' side, ChooseVets gives them ultimate flexibility and the chance to showcase their skills.” Plus, vets get to keep 80 percent of what they bill.

ChooseVets now operates in Seattle, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Oahu and Washington D.C., and will continue expanding to other cities. The company got some high-profile notice earlier this year after Buchanan attended President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in January.

“I never thought I’d be doing this when I was younger — I wanted to be an astronaut and majored in math,” says Buchanan. “But now I’m focused full-time on growing ChooseVets into a national product and expanding the number of services.”

One unexpected benefit of ChooseVets is that it does more than just help vets. It also allows civilians to show their appreciation for military service in a tangible way. “It’s better than just saying thank you,” Buchanan says. “Hire a vet, and you know you’re giving them a real living wage.” 

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Buchanan in Afghanistan photo: ChooseVets