Road to defense contracting led through the battlefield

By Marjorie Censer
Monday, January 17, 2011

It wasn't until Dawn Halfaker had to put an Army uniform back on to greet soldiers returning from Iraq that she knew she had to find a new career.

Despite losing her right arm during a tour in Iraq, Halfaker had hoped she could stay in the military. After recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, she was invited to meet her returning unit but required to don her uniform again. The realization that she was unable to pin her medals on or to salute drove home Halfaker's loss.

"This just isn't going to work," she recalled thinking.

Halfaker, who had played college basketball and trained military police in Iraq, went on to found Halfaker & Associates, an Arlington-based contractor that provides a range of consulting and information technology services primarily to military customers, including helping the Army modernize its recruiting practices and manning operations and intelligence centers. Halfaker said the company brought in $15.5 million in revenue last year. She's among other soldiers who, motivated by their experiences on the battlefield and aided by their personal connections, have launched their own companies.

Halfaker was drawn to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point when she was recruited to play basketball. She graduated in 2001, and, after a yearlong stint in Korea, went to Fort Stewart, Ga., to get ready for deployment. In February 2004, she traveled to Baqubah, Iraq, where she lived among and trained Iraqi police.

In June 2004, Halfaker was on a routine patrol when a rocket-propelled grenade came through her vehicle's window. She was flown out of Iraq and kept in a medically induced coma until she eventually ended up at Walter Reed. There, her parents broke the news that she had lost her arm.

After deciding to leave the military, Halfaker interviewed with major defense contractors but couldn't picture herself at any of them. She soon met an official with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency who hired her as a contractor and gave her the chance to work on programs directly related to the battlefield, such as one for new body armor and prosthetic devices that might allow injured soldiers to reenter the military.

In early 2006, with the guidance of well-known retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, Halfaker launched Halfaker & Associates. She hired her first employee in March, and the company produced about $300,000 in revenue that year. The company now has about 130 employees, about three-quarters of them veterans.

McCaffrey said Halfaker's experience "makes her unusually qualified to provide certain kinds of services."

Young veterans returning from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have "grown up now in combat," said McCaffrey, "and so they're going to make a huge impact on America."

Sean Lane, a former Air Force intelligence officer who completed four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, launched Columbia, Md.-based BTS in 2008 to provide mobile telecommunications technology and software.

Lane and Craig Cummings, a former Army intelligence officer who now serves as BTS's chief operating officer, said they saw firsthand that soldiers on the battlefield needed to be able to share intelligence data more quickly. Troops on missions would gather information and have to drive it back to a base.

BTS, which now has about 50 employees, provides software and technology that condenses the functions of a cellular network so that it can be applied to a battlefield.

"We both felt like . . . we could make a bigger impact outside of the military than we could make inside the military," Cummings said. "We could be entrepreneurs but we could still serve the same cause."

Lane and Cummings said their military connections gave them credibility and helped them sell their technology to the Pentagon.

At Tysons Corner-based A-T Solutions, which provides military training on how to handle improvised explosives, about half of the company's nearly 600 employees are veterans. Some are recent veterans with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The folks coming right out of some of these hot spots are coming out with a tremendous amount of experience that I think is very valuable to what we're trying to do for our client," said Dennis Kelly, A-T Solutions' chief executive and president.

Though working in contracting began as "the next best thing" to being in the military, "it's becoming the best thing," Halfaker said. "I wouldn't want to be doing anything else."

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