Turning tragedies into triumphs isn’t easy, but it’s a challenge that many U.S. military veterans face when they return to civilian life.
At a “Salute to Veterans” luncheon held Nov. 15 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Ponte Vedra, that point was hammered home by a host of military veterans and representatives from organizations that support them, each with their own story to tell. Hosted by the Ponte Vedra Beach Division of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, the luncheon treated local business and community leaders to several speakers, including keynote speaker Joe Padlo — a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
Padlo, now a business owner and alumnus of Wounded Warrior Project, described how a combination of happenstance and his own hesitation to act had led to the deaths of other Marines, and how living with that knowledge had impacted him.
“I retreated into a place that I hope no one ever has to be in,” he said. “It was really bad. My civilian career, everything around me dramatically suffered.”
In 2014, influenced by the suicide of another veteran whom he had failed to help obtain a job, Padlo decided it was time for him to take action. He founded what is now called Veterans Elite Services, a commercial and residential cleaning services company that solely employs military veterans.
“I channeled all of those powerful and terrible feelings about my lack of ability to step up, and I turned it into a company,” Padlo said, illustrating that failure is often just a stepping stone to success.
Other speakers at the event shared similar stories, detailing the various challenges veterans face while transitioning into civilian life. Speakers included U.S. Navy veteran and Operation New Uniform Executive Director Justin Justice; Tim Crosby of K9s for Warriors; U.S. Army veteran Kevin Sosa of Wounded Warrior Project and retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon, who is the senior fellow in international leadership at Hicks Honors College at the University of North Florida and a member of the board at Wounded Warrior Project.
“What the veterans that we serve need is an opportunity to make an impact after the military, and what they’re looking for is success after service,” Justice said. “What I don’t want to be known as is a medically-retired Navy veteran. What I want to be known as is the leader of an organization that cares about veterans.”