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Food for Thought: Veteran Entrepreneurship and Post Traumatic Stress

Veteran-owned businesses are not a new concept.  In fact, 49.7 % of World War II veterans went on to own or operate a business, according to Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

Here is another statistic for you to chew on: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ most recent statistics estimate that one in five service members who return from deployment operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress (P.T.S.). The vast majority of veterans coping with P.T.S. live normal fulfilling lives, albeit with a few extra challenges.

Many veterans can and have managed P.T.S. symptoms while pursuing one of the most American dreams of all, starting and running an independent business.

We invite you to join us on Wednesday, September 8th at 2pm EDT via the Veterans History Project Facebook page to learn more about how veterans handled making that leap to self-employment, and how these organizations gave them the resources, services and assistance to help veterans make their dream a reality.

The following is an interview with one of the Veteran Entrepreneur and Post Traumatic Stress panelists – U.S. Marine Corps Veteran and owner-operator of The Vet Chef LLC, Kyle Gourlie.

Tell us a little about yourself.

IED found in Iraq during Kyle’s deployment during OIF3. Photo provided by Kyle Gourlie.

I grew up in Washington State, where I met my wife, Amanda, in 4th grade.  I decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps in 2004, and deployed to Ramadi, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in February 2005. I spent my 20th birthday in Iraq.  I was halfway through my deployment when I was sent out on a mission with my platoon.  While we were out, my Humvee was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device).  I sustained traumatic brain injury and broke my back in several places. The extent of my injuries weren’t discovered until I transferred to another battalion in 2007.  I had terrible headaches and my legs would go numb during P.T. (physical training).  I was so sick that the “doc” finally sent me to a neurologist.

Once my injuries were discovered, I was attached to the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton and began outpatient therapies at San Diego Naval Hospital and SCRIPPS Encinitas in California. I participated in occupational, physical, speech and vestibular therapies while working with a social worker in order to gain back basic life skills. It was through my therapy that my passion for food and cooking was discovered.

I was medically discharged in 2008, and moved back to Woodinville, Washington with my wife.  It was through her father (my father-in-law) that I learned about complimentary flavors and fusions in food.  He taught me how to cook traditional Mexican food, and I knew I wanted to do more with it.  In 2010, I began my Culinary Management schooling with the Art Institute of Seattle, and graduated in 2013. Amanda and I decided to start The Vet Chef LLC, a mobile food truck with a mission to help veterans and their family members.  As the food truck has grown, so has our commitment to the veteran community as a business incubator that helps veterans start their own foodservice outlets.

We’ve been fortunate to give back to our local communities, work with so many talented veterans and participate in youth programs.  We have two children, Myles and Mara.

What comes to mind when you think of the culinary arts?

Photo of Kyle and Amanda Gourlie outside of their food truck taken by Rachel Belle KIRO Radio. Provided by Kyle Gourlie.

For me, art is a way to express myself without having to say or explain my feelings. Art has the ability to change your emotional state with your first taste, glance, sound, feel, even smell.  Unlike other art forms, food combines all of those senses into one experience.

Cooking has given me a sense of accomplishment; it allows me to share my passion for food and cooking with other people. To get the feedback I get and have it be positive makes me feel good, not because I’m doing something “right,” but because people are happy when they eat my food. I’ve had people tell me that it’s turned their day around. It really has been a therapy for me to cook for other people, food has brought me closer to my community, it has given me new friendships and it has allowed me to help other vets and their families heal and become a part of something that helps take the focus off the struggle inside.

 

 Did you have any memorable food experiences during your service?

Photo of Kyle and his platoon. Provided by Kyle Gourlie.

I remember during one of our deployments in 2006-2007, we had been out in the field in the jungle training for a few weeks, and we were just looking forward to getting back and having a good meal. We found a restaurant in a hotel and it was the kind where you pick your own fish and the chef cooks it up for you. There was a group of about six of us and we ate like KINGS!!! We were served a seven-course meal full of amazing seafood, desserts and drinks. I remember that experience to this day; it was so cool. The food was amazing, especially coming out of the jungle!

 

There was also my time in the Philippines where we trained with the Philippine Rock Marines. After a few days of training, one of the Marines told us that they were going to cook dinner for us and set up a bazaar in the middle of the jungle. A few hours later we saw the Filipino Marine with a 9-foot-long python. They cooked it up over a fire.  The first taste was life-changing.  The sweetness and spice is something that is ingrained in me.  The memory of eating a snake will always stay with me.

You have contributed a collection to VHP, but you also have been inspired by one.  Can you share about that?

Photo of Kyle teaching his daughter Mara how to cook traditional Mexican food at the Castro family reunion. Provided by Kyle Gourlie.

I remember exploring the Mitchell W. Mauer collection and thinking, “Man, I get this guy!”

Mauer was a U.S. Navy veteran who was working as an aircraft mechanic in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore. He was in Singapore during the United States’ 200th Independence Day. They celebrated around the ships, and Mauer (along with five others from New Mexico) decided to try to find some Mexican food.  Just like me, he was out in the field and all he could think about was a good meal. For him it was an enchilada with some “good” hot sauce!  He said in his interview it was so hot that he thought he lost his teeth.

I created a habanero, carrot, mango salsa with him in mind.  It is VERY hot, but has a hint of sweet and overall great flavor.

 

 

 

What lesson has the military taught you that has extended into the kitchen?

The military has taught me discipline, leadership and mentorship. It has taught me dedication. Most importantly it has taught me that the bigger picture is about the people around you – you always take care of the man to your right and left.

Lunch time at the food truck at Everett Naval Complex. Provided by Kyle Gourlie.

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