Retired U.S. Army Captain /UConn Alumnus Building Housing, Haven for Returning Veterans
Every class that graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point adopts a creed that unifies and guides the future officers during their military training.
For U.S. Army Capt. Justin Nash, and the rest of the Class of 2001, that principle was: Til Duty is Done.
That powerful phrase has been a rallying cry for Nash, who several years later led a platoon of professional soldiers and 300 indigent Afghan warriors through a series of harrowing missions near the Pakistani border.
“When I look back at my time in Afghanistan, I can honestly say it was the best of times and it was the worst of times,” said Nash, a two-time degree recipient from the UConn School of Business.
But, Til Duty is Done, did not end there. Now he is embarking on an ambitious, multimillion dollar complex in Norwich, Conn., that will help returning military personnel to transition, both professionally and personally, back to civilian life.
The passion that Nash brings to this mission began with the sense of camaraderie and purpose he developed during his military service in Afghanistan.
“We lived every day in enemy territory with a tough and determined enemy constantly challenging our every move. Everywhere we went, we wore body armor and Kevlar, and we were at an inordinate state of hypervigilance. We had a number of missions in the mountainous region of the Korengal and Peshawar River valleys,” said Nash, a Hamden, Conn. native.
“I vividly remember one mission where we were inserted high up in a valley at a ridiculous elevation. We were surrounded by ridges on both sides and felt like ‘sitting ducks.’ There was an uneasy feeling that we were constantly under watch,” he said. “One evening I was awoken by the excessive explosions on the ridgeline. An enemy mortar element was spotted by a U.S. Air Force Spectre gunship moving toward our position. We made it out of the valley, and moved on to the next mission.”
Nash and his team experienced the devastation of a helicopter crash that killed nine soldiers, and numerous encounters with improvised explosive devices, and worse. When fear befell them, it was Nash who pulled them through it.
“I was a leader of men,” said Nash. “My men would look to me in crisis and, in turn, I watched them grow.” There was pride and purpose in everything he did—a mission to complete, soldiers to guide and protect. It became an important part of who he was.
Once he retired from the Army, Nash thought returning to civilian life would be simple.
“When I got out of the Army, I thought I was good. I hung my uniform in the closet and I thought that was it,” said Nash. “I was fortunate to be highly educated and was able to find work.
“But I discovered that when I was leading soldiers I had a sense of purpose of tremendous magnitude. All that was ripped away from me when I left the Army,” he said. Completing an important construction project just didn’t bring the same level of satisfaction. “I felt aimless.”
Life in a war zone had also changed him in ways he wished it hadn’t. Back home, he showed signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His temper was short; he was startled by loud noises. Later, he half-heartedly attempted suicide, and during an insomnia-fueled hallucination, he attacked his father, mistaking him for a member of the Taliban.
His spiral lasted until he landed in the VA psych ward in 2010. He shares his very personal experience to let other veterans know there is help available, and hope. From that low point, he was able to rebuild his life.
In 2012, Nash enrolled in the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) at the UConn School of Business. He attended the fast-paced program to learn how to create his own construction company, and he now serves as CEO of Veteran Construction Services of Cheshire. But it was in that EBV program, surrounded by other warriors, that Nash had an epiphany.
“It was while sitting in the EBV class that I realized the value of camaraderie in the recovery and transitional process,” he said. “EBV was absolutely instrumental with the development of Til Duty Is Done.”
In 2013, Nash earned his MBA from UConn and the following year he and his brother, Corey Nash, incorporated Til Duty is Done.
The venture involves the refurbishing of a building in downtown Norwich that will house up to 30 veteran apartments when it opens, sometime within the next two years. And while a “roof overhead” is an important part of the project, it is only one aspect of a larger plan to provide a warm, nurturing, no-nonsense place for military veterans to heal, learn new skills, discover how to have fun again and prepare for the next chapter in their lives.
“Our target market is veterans who don’t necessarily want to go to college but want to be positive contributors to society,” he said. He envisions many of the veterans in the Til Duty Is Done program as apprentices in the skilled trades. “When you’re an electrician apprentice, for instance, you probably can’t afford a $1,500 rent,” he said.
“We want to provide core structure and the ability to train and help these veterans along their path. We also want to provide some of the rigidity, structure and discipline that they’ve become accustom to in the military,” Nash said. “When you’re in the service, everything is laid out for you. ‘This is when you go to chow … This is where you train.’ You have a squad leader making sure you are meeting your goals along the way.
“When veterans return to civilian life, they have to figure it out themselves,” Nash said. “We won’t be as structured as the military, but we will have strong expectations, rules to follow, and standards to adhere to.”
The veterans will also be expected to perform community service and be afforded the chance to learn new recreational hobbies.
“I have been fortunate to realize the mind and body are important to the transition. I have found more sanctuary in golf than most other things. It’s really all just an outlet, something to occupy the mind,” Nash said. “I used to ride a motorcycle, and that had the same impact. When on a bike, you can only focus on one thing–staying on the bike!”
The Til Duty is Done complex is part of a larger plan to revive the industrial city of Norwich, and Nash has backing from key stakeholders in that plan, as well as other agencies.
“It warms my heart that while we’re rebuilding lives of veterans we’re also rebuilding the city,” he said. “Til Duty is Done will be a pinnacle of hope, promise and community.”
Til Duty is Done is partnering with area agencies to offer everything from academic support to counseling. While there are many groups that provide one service, like support or housing, there isn’t an organization like this that’s incorporating everything in one place, he said.
“It’s grand in scope, it’s a big undertaking,” Nash said.
He wasn’t deterred by the enormity of the project, Nash said, because at West Point he heard so many inspirational speakers, like U.S. Gen. Colin Powell and U.S. Major Gen. Norm Schwarzkopf. They imparted inspiration and life advice, about taking command and doing what’s right.
“If doing what’s right is the right thing for me, for a well-deserving population, and for our country, then you do what’s right and the rest will come,” Nash said.
Til Duty is Done will formally introduce itself to the public on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, during a celebration called ‘Vets Rock 2015′ at Mohegan Sun.