After Iraq, an Army vet endures a rough path to entrepreneurship, including homelessness

Veteran Derek Rodenbeck, 32, displays some of his artwork in his Center City home studio.

The year Derek Rodenbeck served in Iraq exposed the Army sergeant to rocket and mortar attacks, perilous discoveries of improvised explosive devices, and gruesome sights of injured soldiers, all of which left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Life got no easier back home in Chester County, where Rodenbeck was forced to live out of his car for about a month. His homelessness late last year into early this year was the result of a landlord missing tax payments on the Malvern property where Rodenbeck was living.

Single, 32, and working as a bouncer at the time while occasionally competing in strongman contests, Rodenbeck had no savings to put down on another place.

He spent days at a library reading and drawing. At night, he'd go to a gym for weight training and a shower, then he would bed down in his 1998 Subaru Legacy with his service dog, Kuma, a 140-pound Akita.

It was not the path that organizers at St. Joseph's University had envisioned for a graduate from its Veterans Entrepreneurial Jumpstart Program.

Rodenbeck was one of 19 participants in VEJ's all-expenses-paid, weeklong business-development training program for disabled veterans in April 2015, the inaugural class.

At its conclusion, he impressed a panel of judges in a Shark Tank-style pitch event. Conquering a fear of public speaking, Rodenbeck confidently discussed his plans for a line of clothing featuring artists' designs.

"You are the canvas," he said of the idea behind his Lvnup brand. He planned to start with T-shirts, then expand to dresses, swimsuits, and jackets, and to have his own cut-and-sew facility.

Small-business reality interfered with that plan, however. He sold his first batch of 40 T-shirts for $20 each, but "was definitely in the red" and did not have the capital to keep going.

"I decided to break away from it," Rodenbeck recalled during a recent morning at a Center City apartment he now shares with his girlfriend, Tamara Freilich, a lawyer.

Meeting her while on a walk in Wissahickon Valley Park six months ago was a key turnaround moment for him after the failure of the clothing business.

Another was an introduction by friends to developers of a card game in the Pottstown area, who have hired Rodenbeck as creative director and to handle some marketing, strategy, and personnel management.

Simultaneously, he got hired to work on a comic book based on a movie screenplay by two writers in Georgia.

"I'm not buying a new car," he said in a recent interview. "But I have income now that's not bar work. It's art income."

Earlier this month, Rodenbeck attended the awards dinner for this year's VEJ class, where he impressed Ralph Galati, director of the Office of Veterans Services at St. Joe's and co-creator of the entrepreneurial-training program.

"I noticed a different person that was not the quiet, reserved person" he met last year, Galati said. "I think we drew it out of him. You never know what little nugget you might drop in a class, and someone takes it and that seed germinates."

Rodenbeck was unequivocal in crediting VEJ for his transformation, saying it "nudged me on my way for bigger things."

Hoping for similar results is Birgit Williams of Willow Grove, who took first place - and a $5,000 cash prize - in this year's VEJ program with her 75 Foxtrot Construction LLC, created in December. The 56-year-old Army veteran is primarily seeking government construction work.

Having spent several years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center working with a database of military records - her position was code-named 75 Foxtrot - Williams said government work is a comfortable niche for her.

The St. Joe's program "really helps you think about your business very analytically, rather than 'I have a great idea,' " she said, describing it as a rare and welcome offering for veterans.

"There didn't really seem to be much for veterans out there," Williams said.

How long VEJ continues depends on how effectively Galati, a disabled Air Force vet from Wallingford who was a POW during the Vietnam War, meets his current mission: finding a financial backer.

Its seed money - a $1 million endowment by 1968 alum Frank Trainer - will fund the program through 2018, Galati said.

"We would love to have a local sponsor, a local large corporation or two, stand tall with decent money," he said.

dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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