RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- There is a second battlefield for a soldier that often is more daunting than the first: returning to civilian life.
"We kind of lose our identity," James Felts, a retired Army Ranger, told ABC11. "When you lose your identity, your task, your purpose, your sense of meaning and belonging, that's when you start rolling into your dark place."
Felts' military career spanned more than 20 years, starting with ROTC at UNC Pembrooke and then nearly two decades at Fort Bragg. He also deployed for an 18-month tour in Iraq with the North Carolina National Guard.
"I was tired of the deployments, tired of the mobilizations," Felts said of his decision to leave the military. "Even if you're not deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or any of these places, you're still going to the field training and you're gone from your family for a month."
What happened next, though, was a mission of self-discovery -- and a mission Felts would tackle alone.
"Once the process (of leaving the military) is complete, you're out. That's where the struggle starts."
During the ensuing years Felts would struggle with a job in law enforcement but then find stability as a defense contractor. He would also try his hand in other businesses, but finally found success -- and fulfillment -- in a new endeavor: he's the co-founder and co-manager of Joint Task Force 214, a consulting firm whose sole mission is to teach successful soldiers how to be successful in business.
"Service doesn't end with a contract," Felts emphasized to ABC11. "Just because you're not in the military any longer doesn't mean you're not valuable or you can't continue to serve. What we want to do is break the stereotype that we're all misfit, broken used toys."
Indeed, veterans are not immune to unemployment or even the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Nov. 5, the unemployment rate among veterans is 4.2% - up from 3.9% last month. The rate, however, is still better than that of non-veterans seeking work (4.6%).
The U.S. Department of Labor, moreover, reports that more than half of all unemployed veterans are between the ages of 25-54, which fits the profile of much of what Felts and his business partner, Marty Martinez, are hoping to reach.
"The thing with business and anything is no matter what you do, it's the power of story," Felts said. "We need to tell the story of our military career into a story that makes customers buy."
Ruben Ayala, another Army veteran who served at Fort Bragg, reached out to Felts and Martinez to help with that story. According to Ayala, asking for help was the smartest -- and most difficult -- choice he had to make.
"Being able to let go of the ego and understand you're not going to know everything," Ayala told ABC11. "Sometimes you got to get to the back of the line and just take notes."
Ayala served in the Special Forces for more than a decade and later earned his MBA from the University of Texas. His first business venture was a healthy vending machine company, but Ayala said the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to shut down operations. He added that the experience also exposed a unique challenge to veterans working in the private sector -- the lack of a support system.
"Any veteran who has not kept in touch wherever he's going to set up roots locally, if he doesn't have members who are tied in, it's going to be hard. You're always playing catch up," he said. "I was lost for about 30 days. I didn't know where we were going, but there was nothing I can do about it either."
What Ayala did do in his downtime was come up with another idea -- a clothing line celebrating the diversity of veterans. Together with best friends and Fort Bragg vets Rod Graham, Chris McPhee and Curtez Riggs, the group founded Triple Nikel (555), named after the World War II paratrooper brigade made up of predominantly African-Americans. Still, Ayala found himself in the same spot as he did years ago - not knowing how to get the business off the ground.
"Anybody can say, 'Hey let's start a business,' but you need customers. How do you attract customers, identify them and speak their language? That's what Marty and James are doing a phenomenal job of right now," he said.
More success stories
Triple Nikel has since moved out of a home office in Wilmington to a sprawling new warehouse in San Antonio, and they're not alone in crediting their success to Joint Task Force 214.
Felts and Martinez have also coached Realtors, business managers, even statisticians now working for a Major League Baseball team. In Raleigh, a father-son veteran duo has opened a successful fitness center called Frontline Fitness.
Joint Task Force 214, moreover, is reaching thousands of veterans through its weekly podcast "Lounge With Legends," which recently welcomed the former commanding officer in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Ret.).
"We come from a background of it's not OK to go to sick call," Felts said. "It's a journey of rediscovery when you get out of the military. You have to rediscover yourself -- but not by yourself."