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Veteran vendors: Local vets discuss their transitions to civilian workforce

Dennis Wills, who owns D.G. Wills Books, served in the Air Force from 1967 to 1971.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Packing away the fatigues and salutes, local veterans run or manage businesses in and around La Jolla, deploying skills learned while in the military in a different kind of service: customer service. And through it all, they’re paying it forward to help others making a similar shift to the civilian workforce.

Dennis Wills, who has owned D.G. Wills Books on Girard Avenue in The Village since 1979, said military training often instills in veterans skills they can use once they leave the service.

Wills, who served in the Air Force from 1967 to 1971, learning Russian and monitoring Soviet planes in what is now the Czech Republic among other assignments, said, “I think the self-discipline and focus that one acquires in the military is helpful” in the workforce.

While in military service, Wills thought he might work for the United Nations afterward or for the State Department’s now-defunct Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Failing that, however, he said, “maybe I’d open a bookstore.”

A Los Angeles native, Wills said he used his intelligence training to map out the best places in San Diego, choosing La Jolla for its proximity to UC San Diego.

In the 40-plus years since he opened, Wills has amassed “the largest collection of books on military history in Southern California,” he said. “That’s because this is a military town, and I like military history, and people know that and they come back over and over.”

Wills also hosts military events at the store such as author talks, he said, pointing to the various photos taped onto walls and windows displaying famous military visitors throughout the decades.

He said he enjoys the camaraderie with fellow service members. “I see customers all the time, male and female, who are either veterans or who are in the service now,” he said, adding he often uses military humor with them to connect. “If you’re sort of a colleague, there’s a bond there,” no matter the branch of service.

“On Memorial Day, [fellow veterans and I] are usually outside drinking and listening to military music,” he said.

Justine Sanders said the discipline and structure he gained from the Marine Corps helped him start his own production company
Justine Sanders said the discipline and structure he gained from the Marine Corps helped him start his own production company.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

When La Jolla resident Justine Sanders left the Marines in 2011 after serving for eight years, he started a business with his military-learned skills.

Sanders, who owns the production company Stellar Echelon, served in field artillery and tactical data network administration. “If I wasn’t hacking into it, I was blowing it up,” he said.

He uses “everything” he learned in the Marines now with Stellar Echelon, he said. The service “taught me to be dynamic,” he said, whether on the ground in artillery or in an office setting with technology.

“I’m grateful for the [experience],” Sanders said, “because it taught me a lot of patience. It taught me a lot of perseverance and tenacity,” qualities he applied to earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree and will use as an applicant to the University of Southern California’s Ph.D. program for media arts and practice.

“I’m really driven, partially because of the discipline and the structure that I gathered in the Marine Corps,” he said.

Also the Vice Commander for American Legion Post 275 La Jolla, Sanders connects with other veterans who help each other “stay inspired.”

He also hopes to build a dormitory to house those newly transitioning from military service to civilian life, as he said it’s important for recent vets to connect with experienced vets.

“You want to surround yourself with people that are focused and are driven and are inspired,” he said.

Matthew Knowles said he has received supports as a Navy veteran with his own business, but wishes there were more.
(Courtesy of Matthew Knowles)

Matthew Knowles, who owns the Turquoise Street Coin Laundry in Pacific Beach, said running a business as a vet can be difficult without support.

Knowles, a Navy helicopter pilot for combat support from 1986 to 2007, said while there are resources available for veteran business owners like the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Veterans Business Outreach Centers, he found other businesses were lacking in tangible support.

“It was more of a trend to say that ‘we support veterans,’” Knowles said, “but then when it really came down to it, they didn’t do much,” such as offering discounts on a point-of-sale system.

He said he’d like more civilians to understand that “veterans have a lot of difficulties” transitioning from military service, and that the U.S. Census Bureau reports 5.9 percent of businesses are veteran-owned.

Knowles said supporting small, veteran-owned businesses can make a difference, and added he’d like to see a city-wide movement to place signage in storefronts indicating which are veteran-owned.

Marine Corps veteran Rhonda Miller, who manages the Amazon bookstore at UTC.
Marine Corps veteran Rhonda Miller, who manages the Amazon bookstore at UTC, believes vets have many skills that can transfer to the civilian workforce.
(Courtesy of Rhonda Miller)

Rhonda Miller, store manager for the Amazon Books store in UTC, said civilians often “don’t really understand” veterans’ skill sets, and encourages those interviewing veterans to take the time to understand how military leadership skills can translate to the civilian workforce.

Miller served in the Marine Corps from 1989 to 1992 in administrative and operational roles, learning skills she said “really helped me when I jumped into retail,” an industry she’s worked in for 20 years.

She said “if a lot of companies move toward [taking] in veterans and really provide support and training for them, they’ll find that they’ll have a really amazing workforce of leaders.”

Recruiting and supporting veterans is Miller’s duty to her fellow servicemembers, she said. “In any capacity at any retailer I’ve worked with, when there is any type of hiring or recruiting for veterans, I’ve always stepped in,” talking to veterans about the businesses.

She said she “thought it was really important for veterans to see that once you do exit, there are those opportunities. I had really great mentors in my life that saw my skill set and they really developed that. I just want to be one of those people as well and just be a good example.”

“I want veterans to know that there is so much more out there for them when they do exit the military,” she said. ◆