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Local vet’s firm is training Marines

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When Marines are able to defuse tense situations in Afghanistan, some of the credit may go to training they received from a local firm.

Corps Solutions, a veteran-owned business in Stafford County, specializes in providing practical, realistic scenario development and exercise design services to Marines at Quantico and several other Marine Corps bases.

“We’re teaching civil affairs Marines how to interface with Afghans and work with local leaders to resolve grievances and bring stability,” said president and owner Tom Keogh. “We teach them how to plan and be a team leader and conduct operations with people.”

These can range from bringing food, water and medical supplies to a community to working with local leaders to resolve disputes over water rights or farm fields.

“Then, they stop fighting you and come over to your side,” said Keogh, who retired from the Marine Corps three years ago. “The whole purpose is to restore stability in Afghanistan and make the Afghan government be legitimate.”

He got the idea for the company while working in the MAGTF Staff Training Program at Quantico Marine Corps Base. The program specializes in training for one-, two- and three-star generals. Due to cutbacks, it didn’t have the resources to provide it to lower ranking officers.

When colonels started calling to ask if they could get the same training, Keogh realized there was a market he could fill upon retirement—and that the demand for his skills would only grow as the military downsizes.

“Requirements don’t go away,” he said. “As the military starts to contract, services will be provided by civilians or contractors.”

Keogh, who went into the Marines after graduating from Boston University in 1989, said he’d always dreamed of starting his own business and initially kicked around the idea of running a restaurant or a mountaineering school.

He decided to get a project management professional certification from the University of Mary Washington and an MBA in entrepreneurial management from Trident University International during the last few years he was in the corps.

Six months before retirement in 2009, Keogh also signed up for help through the Rappahannock Region Small Business Development Center, which was then at UMW’s Stafford campus. It provided him with a counselor.

“It’s a very, very good resource for people starting a business,” he said. “If people ask me how to start a business, that’s the first place I would recommend they go.”

He also turned to the Procurement Technical Assistance Program at George Mason University’s Mason Enterprise Center in Fairfax to learn the ins and outs of doing business with the federal government.

“It’s challenging,” Keogh said. “You have to be a certified vendor.”

He started Corps Solutions out of his home office nearly three years ago with the help of one employee. He now has a staff of about 30, most of whom are Marines, and moved into an office on State Route 610 in North Stafford last September. By year’s end, the company will have nearly doubled its staff and expanded into office space next door.

Corps Solutions currently has six government contracts for its services. At Quantico, for example, it is providing classroom instruction and field exercises in a mock Afghan village for Marines who will be dealing with civil affairs. Participants read case studies, break into small discussion groups and then put the skills, tactics and techniques they’ve learned to use in field exercises in the “village.”

Everything from the case studies down to the scripts for the people playing the part of Afghans is developed by Marines who had been deployed to Afghanistan and experienced those situations.

Two weeks after going through the program, a group of Marines were sent to the Marjah district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province to restore order and government to an area that had been under Taliban control. They were able to bring in food, water and medical supplies and open one of its first schools in decades.

“They go out and do amazing things,” he said. “It’s pretty rewarding.”

The company has a similar training program for Marines involved in information operations, such as speaking on the behalf of generals to Iraqi leaders.

Keogh was able to start his company on a shoestring because he was providing services and Marine Corps bases provided the space. His main expenses were for a computer, cellphone, business cards and a website,

But he’s faced two challenges as the business has grown. One is the lag time between applying for a government contract, getting it and then being reimbursed. The other is getting a small business loan or line of credit.

“The Small Business Administration and banks are eager to lend out money, but not that eager,” Keogh said. “I was in business for two years before they were willing to lend me anything. They wanted a two-year record unless you’re buying equipment they can get back from you.”

He eventually plans to expand Corps Solutions services to other branches of the service.

“My philosophy is that we’re not going to grow so fast that we can’t provide quality services,” Keogh said. “We hire the right people, do quality work, get a good reputation and then people will say, ‘Can you help us with this?’”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407