For most people, starting a homebased business and growing it into a multi-million dollar firm would provide bragging rights for a lifetime. Not for Palisadian Jim Cragg.
Ask the successful founder and CEO of defense contractor Special Operations Technologies, Inc. what he does for a living and he’ll launch into an impassioned discussion about sewing.
That’s how this former Special Operations soldier, paratrooper, U.S. Army Reserve officer and disabled vet is helping other veterans stitch together the torn fabric of their lives and re-enter the workforce.
In 2010, Cragg founded Green Vets Los Angeles, a non-profit vocational rehabilitation program where military veterans who are homeless or at risk for homelessness are trained and paid to sew and silkscreen reusable shopping bags, T-shirts and teddy bears called “Challenge Bears” at locations in LA and Carson.
“Sewing is a simple, creative forum that functions as work therapy for the veterans because they are able to talk openly about their experiences with one another, and it trains them with employable skills,” Cragg told the Palisadian-Post.
The organization welcomes both male and female veterans. One female veteran at Green Vets LA was a combat photographer who documented the Berlin Wall coming down.
“The sound of the sewing machine drowns out the sound of the dead bodies talking to me,” Cragg quoted her as saying, tears springing to his eyes.
Combat Boots and Carbon Footprints
Cragg, who attended West Point and has a degree from UCLA, lives in Marquez Knolls with his fiancée Dr. Susan Marusak and their six-month-old daughter Charley. Marsurak, who is a Palisades High School graduate, is also a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and a psychiatrist-advisor to Green Vets LA.
Their commitment to helping veterans is matched by a dedication to protecting our environment.
Cragg credits Josephine Miller with the Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment with introducing him to the need for locally made cloth shopping bags as part of the effort to ban plastic bags.
While many people viewed the plastic bag ban as a potential job killer, Cragg saw it as an opportunity for out-of-work veterans.
“To make 100,000 reusable bags it takes 20 sewers four months. To make 100,000 plastic bags, it takes two workers less than an hour,” Cragg said.
Green Vets LA has since made over 40,000 cloth shopping bags for the City of Santa Monica and has additional contracts with the City of Los Angeles among others.
The organization works closely with the West Los Angeles VA Hospital. Once vets are given counseling and medical treatment, they are welcomed in by Green Vets LA for job training.
Although the organization offers veterans the chance to get their bearings and get back on their feet, its most valuable gift can sometimes be as simple as being with somebody who understands what they have been through.
Cragg said that among the obstacles many veterans face – substance abuse, suicide and homelessness – feeling abandoned or misunderstood can be just as damaging.
“What we worry about is the marginalization,” he said.
According to Cragg, 95 percent of veterans have not engaged in violent combat, yet the public image of veterans as rattled, psychologically unstable, potentially violent and homeless remains.
“The media presents a lot of drama around the image of a veteran,” Cragg said.
“Suicide is our big issue. Homicide is not,” he added, remembering a soldier who had been in his unit who committed suicide within 24 hours of taking off his uniform upon returning home.
Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives, according to 2013 statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In part, this is because once back on U.S. soil and away from service or war, the battle is not over for returning veterans.
For many, the road ahead can seem like an endless uphill climb, and they don’t know where to turn for help.
Veterans vs. Veterans
Many non-military people assume that all veterans are alike and that there is a supportive camaraderie that bonds all vets together, but this isn’t the case, according to Cragg. Age differences and other factors can create a divide among those who have served in the military.
In 2011, the median age of male veterans was 64, according to the American Community Survey done by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. The largest living cohort of male veterans served during the Vietnam Era (August 1964-April 1975).
By contrast, the largest living cohort of female veterans served during Gulf War II (September 2001 or later) and in peacetime periods, and many veterans of the “Global War on Terror” are much younger than the 2011 national average.
As with most people, many vets tend to feel more comfortable with those in their own age group.
Cragg noted that age is not the only dividing factor between veterans. Another significant difference is that unlike older veterans, modern veterans were not drafted – they went willingly.
This difference can often make it hard for younger veterans to feel like they fit in at certain long-running support networks that are populated primarily by older veterans, Cragg said.
For example, “the American Legion has problems attracting modern war veterans,” he said.
In part, this is due to the Legion’s tendency to meet at the local Post over drinks rather than engaging with other factions of the community, he said.
Younger veterans tend to seek out other support groups with people closer to their own age. These groups, unfortunately, are typically not as well known as the American Legion, often leaving younger vets feeling alone.
These factors can all contribute to a modern returning veteran’s feelings of alienation.
This is where Green Vets LA comes in. Vets are surrounded by other vets – many of them young – in an environment that fosters healing, camaraderie and confidence.
Cragg noted that returning veterans already have a broad set of skills – including accountability, positivity, timeliness and teamwork – that businesses should home in on.
Green Vets LA helps build on those skills.
By teaching veterans how to do something that betters their own community, it can make them feel connected to their place of residence and ultimately help on the road to reintegration.
Green Vets LA products designed and sewn by veterans can be purchased at greenvetsla.com. Money from sales goes to pay the veterans who work at the organization and to help fund the program itself.