Bill Puopolo is no stranger to hurdles. He's dealt with traumatic brain injury and herniated discs in his spine. He's done a tour each in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2005 with the National Guard, and he was stationed in South Korea before that with the U.S. Army.
But now that he's back home in New Port Richey, the 36-year-old veteran is facing what might be an even tougher fight: starting his own business — and hiring other veterans — in a slumped economy.
Last week that became a little easier, thanks to a $30,000 business grant.
Puopolo has been working for years to get Verissimo Global off the ground. He started the communications and technology solutions company in 2007, but a few years later, Puopolo was called to Afghanistan. He returned at the end of 2010, still driven but also set back.
After he joined a few veterans' and business groups, he heard about Veterans' Pathway to Business Success. Founded in 2012 by a Korean War veteran, the nonprofit provides grants and guidance for post- 9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Florida who want to run businesses.
The board awarded Verissimo Global the $30,000 grant for business development after he presented a business plan and interviewed with a committee. His business aims to provide technology services to government groups and corporations, drawing on veterans' military experience.
"He just exemplifies everything you would want to see in a veteran, in an entrepreneur, in a businessperson and in a human being," said Veterans' Pathway executive director Charlotte Laurent-Ottomane.
His dedication to helping other veterans especially drew the board members' attention, she said.
Puopolo has brought two other veterans on to his leadership team, and he wants to hire more. It's been his priority since he moved to Florida in 2006 and began turning his business idea over in his mind.
He knows the transition back to civilian life is hard. Unemployment -- a grim reality for many veterans -- only makes it worse.
"It's not like you come home, and you flip a switch, and everything's the same as before you left," he said.
So he looks to connect with veterans and their unique experiences. He networks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10167 in Holiday, where veterans gather to shoot pool and catch up over drinks, and he is already meeting business owners through Veterans' Pathway.
If this outreach has helped him and his business so much, it could do the same for others.
These new veterans are more than disciplined, obedient soldiers, Puopolo said. The military is populated by diplomats, logistical experts and emergency operations managers. They are problem-solvers and tech wizards.
"It's more than a profession of arms," he said.
That's what he wants his potential clients to see. Military technology and know-how can help large government prime contractors, he said, and veterans are coming home empowered with new skills. They just need a little boost.
His leg up came from Florida State University's Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, a congressman's veterans advisory committee, and AT&T's Operation Hand Salute mentoring program.
Now one of his friends from the advisory committee thinks Puopolo himself could inspire more veterans.
Ed Breitenbach said he is convinced that one success story could be the push that will inspire veterans and spur corporations to partner with veterans. The 67-year-old Holiday resident, Vietnam veteran and former Wall Street businessman said Puopolo has been able to push past the idea phase and take Verissimo Global to a more competitive level. They think he's close to Verissimo's first big contract.
The idea is simple: Gather a core group of specialized veteran-owned businesses to work as contractors for large corporations. The contractors would shift depending on the circumstance, but it would keep knowledgeable veterans employed.
"He's blazing the path for thousands of vets out there," Breitenbach said.
He still has more hurdles to face — living off his savings, the possibility of being deployed, balancing work and family — but Puopolo sees success in his future, with the help of his support system.
In the meantime, he will soldier on.