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Some veterans find a way to be their own boss

Glenn Morales started L & I Army Navy Store in Lowell, named after his daughters Lucy and Isabel, after returning from duty in Iraq.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Glenn Morales started L & I Army Navy Store in Lowell, named after his daughters Lucy and Isabel, after returning from duty in Iraq.

LOWELL — At L&I Army-Navy Store on Market Street, Glenn Morales engraves stainless steel dog tags on a graphotype machine used in World War II. The tags are his biggest seller at the store he opened three years ago.

“A lot of people get them for their pets or to put their own medical information on it,” said Morales, 39, a Marine veteran, who served for 13 years. “I bought the machine for $50 from another veteran. He had it for 30 years. He could have sold it for more. He wanted to help me out.”

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In Chelmsford, Army veterans Sal Amato and Scot Finn started Medsav Solutions, a medical products company, after they returned from yearlong deployments to Afghanistan. The company sells medical products to clinics, nursing homes, and consumers online, and hopes to tap into the veterans’ hospital market.

“When you deploy, it kind of sets you back, from an employment standpoint,” said Finn, 30, who is now living in Malden. “You have recent grads coming out of school. Employers look at you and say, ‘Great, you served your country, but it’s been two years since you’ve worked or been in school.’ ”

Unlike those who returned from prior wars, veterans today return home to an economy that is recovering from the worst conditions since the Depression.

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But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterans are doing slightly better at finding jobs than the overall population. In October, the unemployment rate for veterans was 6.3 percent, down from 7.7 percent in October 2011. The unemployment rate for the general population was 7.9 percent last month, according to the bureau.

The tough job market has prompted some veterans to become bootstrap entrepreneurs. With good leadership and teamwork skills, veterans make good candidates for business ownership, advocates say.

“Veterans make great entrepreneurs because of the training they’ve had,” said Walt Wise, chief operations officer at the Northeast Veterans Business Resource Center in Lawrence, one of 15 transition centers nationwide. “They’re trained to be leaders. They have that can-do spirit. They come from an environment where failure is not an option.”

Glenn Morales makes dog tags in his Lowell store for Matt Goldman and Chris Bullens (background).

BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF

Glenn Morales makes dog tags in his Lowell store for Matt Goldman and Chris Bullens (background).

State and federal initiatives aim to boost the fortunes of veteran entrepreneurs. Massachusetts, for example, gives tax credits to employers that hire veterans. Veteran-owned businesses also qualify for the incentive, said Matt McKenna, a spokesman for the state Office of Veteran’s Services.

“There’s a veteran in Ply­mouth who has a cell tower construction business,” McKenna said. “Twenty-five percent of his workforce is veterans. It can be a good incentive.”

The US Small Business Association launched the Patriot Express Loan program, which provides veterans and military personnel with up to $500,000 in loan guarantees to start or expand a business. The Massachusetts SBA backed 83 loans worth $17.5 million to veterans from Oct. 1, 2011, through Sept. 30, 2012.

Operation Boots-to-Business aims to help veterans start and grow a business. A curriculum developed by Syracuse University provides guidance on topics such as writing a business plan. The program soon will be offered at military bases in Massachusetts, Wise said.

“There is a movement now in the military, when someone leaves the service, to help them transition better,” Wise said. “The bases will be offering Boots-to-Business as part of that.”

Finn, who has a business degree from Northeastern University, said he thinks such training is invaluable for veterans striking out on their own.

“A strong foundation of advisers is really important,” said Finn, who is originally from Nashua. “You don’t have to be in this alone. If there are people out there with a lot more knowledge than you have, you want them on your team.”

But the red tape is sometimes too thick. Finn and his business partner, Amato, sought advice from the SBA and other resources as they started up their medical products company. But when it came to financing, the Patriot loans and others proved too difficult to obtain, so they financed the business with their own savings.

“Those loans are hard to get,” said Amato, 42, who lives in Billerica. “The banks still want to see an 800 credit score, and that you own a house with 50 percent equity. That’s very stringent. We’re a true start-up. We couldn’t meet that.”

In Lowell, Morales financed his Army-Navy store off a credit card instead of getting a loan from a credit union.

“The rates were lower than what the bank loan would have been,” said Morales, who grew up in Medford and lives in Lowell. “I didn’t have to go through all the red tape of applying for loans.”

Morales’s store is filled with military gear, used boots, and field jackets turned in by local veterans.

“A lot of people going in [to the service] will come here to get a uniform, because it’s cheaper,” he said.

Morales — who named his store for daughters Lucy and Isabel — also aims to capture the civilian market for military clothing. Cargo pants, T-shirts, sweat shirts printed with the names of the five services branches, baseball caps, and belts are popular.

“Even if people aren’t military, camouflage is popular,” he said.

Stickers in the store read, “Half My Heart is in Afghanistan.” There are classic G.I. Joe dolls, and even teddy bears dressed in military outfits in stock.

“It’s a good business,” said Morales. “You’re not going to make a million dollars, but it pays the bills.”

Morales was working as an EMT when he joined the Marine Reserves in 1997. In 2003, his unit was deployed to Iraq, where he worked as a welder during an eight-month tour. He fixed Hummers, often riding in convoys to deliver supplies to combat troops.

After leaving the Marines in 2010, he had thought about retraining to become an auto mechanic, but decided instead to follow his entrepreneurial spirit.

“In the back of my mind, I had always wanted to own my own business,” Morales said.

Pride for the military, and a boyhood love for an Army-Navy shop in Malden, led Morales to open his Lowell store.

“I would ride my bike over to the store, look and see what’s new,” he said. “It used to be that every city had an Army-Navy store. Now, there aren’t many around.”

The wooden sign on his storefront on Market Street states the store is a veteran-owned business.

“I am proud of what I did in the Marines,” said Morales, a son of Guatemalan immigrants. “I am proud of what I’ve done here. I started this business. This is not something I inherited.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at KMcCabe@Globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.
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