On this Subway’s menu: support for veterans

A veteran is sitting in a booth in a Connecticut Subway restaurant, waiting to meet with Michael Thomas about job opportunities after driving from his home in Waterbury.

Another veteran is behind the counter, learning about customer service and business operations.

Michael Thomas, owner of a Subway restaurant in New Haven, Conn., is a veteran of Kosovo and Afghanistan. He aims to offer veterans jobs and support.  (Peter Casolino/New Haven Register)

Michael Thomas, owner of a Subway restaurant in New Haven, Conn., is a veteran of Kosovo and Afghanistan. He aims to offer veterans jobs and support. (Peter Casolino/New Haven Register)

A Navy veteran himself, Thomas recently took over the West Haven store with the goal of employing several veterans, some with disabilities, and giving all employees the skills needed in today’s job market — not just training in creative cold-cut combinations.

His ultimate vision entails not only maintaining the storefront as a popular eatery, but developing it into a support for veterans, a resource center for those who are returning from war or have been back for decades — to aid them in finding jobs, fine-tuning resumes or connecting with VA Connecticut Healthcare System staff.

“This is particularly rewarding because I’ve gone from a life that was focused on killing to a life that’s focused on nourishment and sustainment,” Thomas said, “and that, from a personal, emotional, psychological, spiritual standpoint, is incredibly fulfilling.”

And, he adds, “I think that is something that will resonate with my brothers and sisters who are coming back.”

A dire situation. Thomas, 43, grew up in New Haven and attended Wesleyan University in Middletown and Yale Law School before entering the Navy in 1995 to serve as an intelligence officer. He served in Kosovo as part of Operation Allied Force in 1999 under Gen. Wesley Clark and in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008, returning to Connecticut about four years ago.

“I realized I had changed, and the world had changed, and I was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and started going to the VA in West Haven,” said Thomas, who now lives in Milford with his wife.

He took a job as a senior adviser for veteran, military and defense affairs with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conneticut) and said the work showed him “how dire the situation for veterans was, especially with employment.”

It led him to a man who worked at Subway and was hoping the brand could launch a veteran-focused training model.

Thomas is the first Subway franchise location to initiate a veterans program, a goal made possible by a Webster Bank startup loan through the Small Business Administration’s Patriot Express program.

“I’m putting all my employees through the same thing,” he said. “… My thought was to bring people in, grow them from the inside, show them how to run a franchise from soup to nuts — from baking bread to running financials and doing the marketing.”

And Thomas promises interested employees help in starting their own franchises. Some may just come for part-time work to get job experience and a self-esteem boost. Working under and with fellow veterans can help with the transition back into civilian life, Thomas said.

A space for support.  The second part of his plan is to create a conference room and a larger meeting area behind Subway food operations so veterans have a space for networking, career advice or appointments with VA or New Haven Vet Center staff. He envisions it as a place where veterans can find information on local services in a “non-threatening, non-institutional environment.”

Veterans don’t always want to come to a hospital for all appointments, said Laurie Harkness, director of VA Connecticut’s Errera Center, a mental health group helping vets re-enter civilian life.

“This is going to be a place where my staff will come and hang out with veterans and bond with them and help them get access to services that will help them get on with their lives,” Harkness said.

The Subway location’s proximity to the VA and the Errera Center is part of the reason Thomas chose West Haven to put down his culinary roots.

Harkness and her colleagues have referred a few clients to Thomas for jobs and check on their progress. Thomas employs people who have never been in the military and four who have: two from the Vietnam era and two from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, who see an unemployment rate in the state double that of civilians.

“He said the veterans are the glue of his whole business. The veterans show the young people what it means to have a job,” Harkness said.

‘It’s been a dream.’  For Arthur Edwards, an Army veteran who served in Germany from 1980 to 1987, working as a sandwich artist at Subway is a new challenge. He heard about the opportunity from the Errera Center.

“I went to culinary school. One day I’m going to have a franchise,” he said, taking a break from a shift at the counter. “Everybody who works here gets along. It’s a team.”

Jobs are hard to find, especially for vets, said Darryl Gibbs, a veteran who came from Waterbury to meet with Thomas about getting a job at the West Haven Subway or near his home.

With troops expected to withdraw from operations in Afghanistan in 2014, Thomas says he feels pressure to have his program up and running and hopefully spreading to other Subways within a few years.

“Veterans reaching out to other veterans and helping each other through is going to be essential,” he said.

He already has an open-door policy for any veterans looking for advice and has gotten involved with fundraisers for the Fisher House, a facility that will be built near the VA to accommodate families of veterans receiving long-term treatment.

“It’s been a dream to have veteran-owned Subways all over the country, and (it) is because so many veterans are coming home and having trouble in the transition from total structure to nothingness,” Harkness said.

Thomas, she said, “is the perfect person to be our first owner. He’s a hero, and he knows what it’s like to be in combat, and he knows the difficulties that many of his fellow veterans have had and wants to help.”

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