Legion Legislative Division Director Lou Celli offered constructive criticism of SBA's veterans' small business programs. (Photo by Craig Roberts)

‘Our veterans deserve better’

The American Legion says veterans who own and operate small businesses – or wish to – need a bigger boost than what the government offers currently. The Legion’s message was communicated by Legion Legislative Division Director Lou Celli during a U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship roundtable on Nov. 13.

The discussion, titled "Serving our Service Members: A Review of Programs for Veteran Entrepreneurs," was led by committee chair Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

"As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan come to a close and our troop levels draw down from the Mideast," she said, "the American economy is gaining access to tens of thousands of smart, disciplined and motivated men and women leaving their posts overseas to enter the workforce here at home. These young men and women develop a unique skill set during their years of service in uniform, and we need to do everything possible to clear a path for them to use those skills to make a living and to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of their communities and our nation. (Today) we want to see what federal programs are working well to assist veterans in this transition and which need to be tuned up."

Among the federal programs that need tuning up are those administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA), Celli said. "Over the course of almost 15 years, (the SBA’s Office of Veterans Business Development) has only been able to grow to 14 Veteran Business Outreach Centers (VBOCs) while other SBA outreach offices have experienced double and triple that growth," he said. "These centers are the primary client generator for the veterans’ business outreach office, yet they are but an obscure link in the middle of a webpage that has more than 50 such links…"

VBOCs are designed, according to their mission statement, "to help create, develop, and retain veteran-owned small business enterprises."

Celli continued with remarks critical of the SBA’s "Patriot Express" lending program. "The strength of that program," he said, "has been so diluted that it really isn’t any more advantageous than other lending programs in the SBA portfolio. Our veterans deserve better."

To illustrate his point, Celli related the story of a Legionnaire who owns a small IT business in Sen. Landrieu’s hometown of New Orleans. "He is a disabled veteran who was medically evacuated out of Iraq," Celli said. "When he applied for the Patriot Express loan, he was denied because of a bureaucratic administrative error that SBA was unable to compensate for. The mistake was eventually corrected, but (he) never did get that loan."

Celli did acknowledge the value of the VBOCs, as well as the Patriot Express loan program, expressing the belief that the great expertise offered by the veterans outreach centers can and should be put to good use in educating veterans in what panelist Robert Rehder, a VBC director, called "financial literacy."

In closing remarks, Celli said, "No one in this room thinks that…Patriot Express or any lending program should be ‘free money’ for veterans. Quite the opposite. It should be competitive and difficult to get because a gauntlet needs to be gone through by a veteran to make sure that (he or she) understand(s) what that money is going to be used for. And, the only way to do that is through training. The only way to make sure that (a) business plan is solid and sound is if it goes through one of the experts that work with veterans and understand the dynamics.

"It’s really criminal that our veterans go from the front lines to the back of the line in contracting."

Celli was joined on the discussion panel by nine other advocates for veteran entrepreneurs, including Rhett Jeppson, an associate administrator of SBA’s Office of Veterans Business Development.