Army veteran Tim Kenney finds a new life as a small-businessman

MONTROSE, CO — Tim Kenney is almost in his element behind the counter at Toads Guide Shop. Here, bits of brightly colored fly-tying fluff fill glass bins, and a blue inflatable raft reminds customers – and Kenney – of the promise of future fly-fishing trips.

Kenney had been a fishing, rafting and hunting guide and a contract trapper before he decided, just shy of 42, to join the Army National Guard. He was tired of seeing 20-somethings disproportionately losing their lives in faraway wars. He has daughters 20 and 18 years old and two younger children. He reasoned that if he served he might be able to keep his own children from having to go to war.

So this wiry outdoorsman reported for duty at Fort Benning with a company of fresh-faced youngsters who laughed at his love of Toby Keith’s hyper-patriotic songs and couldn’t fathom Kenney’s unfamiliarity with iPhones.

Physically, he was strong enough from years of rowing rough waters and tramping miles in big game tracks to keep up with the younger soldiers, even when he volunteered for a combat unit headed to a mountainous region of Afghanistan.

That was then. Several rocket-propelled-grenade hits, a blown-out disc, a torn shoulder, a shrapnel hit in the face, broken teeth and a rattled brain later he is struggling to figure out if he will ever be able to do what he did before he became Army Specialist Kenney.

Kenney wanted to fight when he joined the military, he says, not make sandwiches. So he was the gung-ho soldier assigned to poke out of a turret on top of armored vehicles and fire a machine gun at the enemy like some video game character.

Today, Kenney is in nearly constant pain from being tossed about in his turret slings when it was hit with rocket-propelled grenades. He is fidgety and has a hard time staying organized. He can only do it with the aid of a new iPhone the Veterans Administration supplied for him. He is nervous in crowds. He is more easily angered than ever. And he is struggling to reconnect with his wife and children.

“There are things you do in war that will haunt you, he explains. “It messes you up.”

He shakes a head that he still keeps shaved down to salt-and-pepper, military-sanctioned stubble and repeats that, emphasizing every word.

“It messes you up.”

But here in his business he opened on Main Street he finds some peace. With everything in its place, the coffee fresh, the sun streaming in to light up the fly-tying bins, and the phone ringing with inquiries about guided trips, Kenney said he can feel optimistic about the future.

He may not be able to get out and guide like he has long done. But he can keep a hand in the business by contracting with others to provide the trips.

“I feel like I’m gonna make it. You can’t keep a good dog down,” Kenney says. “But some of those kids, they are not going to be able to handle it.”

Kenney has now made it his personal mission to help them with that. It is also his Army-sanctioned way to complete his active duty.

Kenney is able to serve out the remainder of his active duty at home through the Community-based Warrior Transition Unit program. That program sends soldiers home to heal rather than keeping them far from family on military bases or in hospitals.

By serendipity, Kenney returned to a community that is trying to refashion itself into a barrier-free place for returning soldiers to live and thrive. The Transition program assigned Kenney to work with the effort, called Welcome Home Montrose, as a way to contribute during his active duty.

Kenney likes to joke that he is the Welcome Home Montrose guinea pig. In truth, he is the group’s reality check.

He knows how hard it is to get back into normal life after finding combat exhilarating. He understands the mental challenges of no longer feeling physically invincible.

And being older and a business owner gives him a different perspective on what returning soldiers need.

“They have been in combat. They have been making split-second life-and-death decisions,” he points out. “They can’t come back and be happy working at Applebee’s.”

That is his biggest frustration with the Veterans Administration and with non-profit programs for returning soldiers and wounded warriors. He stresses that they have been treating him well, but some of the help is off-the-mark.

He can get funding to go to school. And if he wants to climb the Himalayas, he can get an all-expenses-paid trip. But he can’t get a small-business loan or grant funding to help him build his business.

“Why can’t they use that money they would spend on me to help me get my business going? Why won’t they do that for others?” he asks.

That is going to be a big part of his message to Welcome Home Montrose: If you want to do the right thing for returning soldiers, help them to do something where they can be productive – not just survive. Help them use the skills they acquired in combat. Let them take risks in the business world like they did on the battleground.

“Invest in these soldiers. Your community will be better for it. Your country will be better for it,” Kenney says. “ We will all be better for it.”

Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957, nlofholm@denverpost.com or twitter.com/nlofholm

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  • Jeff

    The videographer is a genius.
     

  • Jonsplace992

    I am upset that our government does not give small business loans to our vets.  I salute the honor and dignity Mr. Kenney displays in his attempt to help other vets.

  • Michael Blair

    This is a truly beautiful piece! Great job by the photojournalists who created this piece of art.