Military Connection Founder Carries on Fathers Service
By Amy Bentley
It shouldn't surprise anyone that operating a website that serves American veterans, active-duty service members and their families has become Debbie Gregory's passion.
The Thousand Oaks resident is the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran. While growing up, she and her sister sometimes were left with relatives while her father, Leonard Grossman, was hospitalized for an operation. A cryptographer during the war, Grossman endured many stays at Veterans Administration hospitals. He was one of 11 children, and seven of his brothers also enlisted during World War II.
"He was brilliant, strong and positive, and never said, 'Why me?' " Gregory said of her late father. "He gave me a fighting spirit. I realized what it's like for veterans to have to go here for this and there for that, and how challenging it can be."
Enter militaryconnection.com, a website that went live in late 2006. Gregory and a staff of six at her Simi Valley office run the business with help from a handful of writers and marketing professionals who work remotely.
MilitaryConnection.com serves members of all branches of the U.S. military, plus reservists, veterans, their families and those with the Coast Guard and Department of Defense. The site maintains a jobs directory, helps veterans search for jobs, has information about how to apply to military schools and for financial loans, features pay charts and legal columns, and includes information about education and the Post 9/11 GI Bill. The site's blog features stories about wounded warriors, vacations for veterans and financial benefits for employers that hire veterans.
"Less than 1 percent of our population serves in the military, and the rest of us get to live our lives in peace and harmony while they are writing a blank check with their lives. When they return, we all need to step up. If anyone deserves the American dream, it's those who make those sacrifices, including their families because they serve, too," Gregory said.
She started her company in 2000, handling print advertising in military base newspapers. She revamped the business in 2006 to focus on the website as a one-stop online resource.
"I wanted the business to be more than just an advertising venue," she said.
The site averages 10,000 daily unique visitors, has a database of more than 800,000 recipients for the company's twice-monthly e-newsletter, and has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, Gregory said. It's also known as a top employment website.
The business has won numerous awards and citations. Gregory was named the 2009 Woman Business Owner of the Year by the city of Thousand Oaks, the Ventura County Board Brig. Gen. James P. Combs of Supervisors and the National Association of Woman Business Owners. She's received letters of commendation from retired Maj. Gen. Peter J. Gravett, secretary for the California Department of Veterans Affairs; and, former commander of the California Army National Guard.
Gregory helps veterans and the military community on other fronts. Her business co-sponsors the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum's annual Freedom Walk, which honors 9/11 victims, deployed troops, first responders and veterans.
"Every year, the event gets bigger. Everybody comes together and remembers that we live in the greatest country in the world. We're all Americans that day," she said.
Her business sponsored a concert at Camp Pendleton in 2006, has given scholarships and partners with businesses that hire veterans. Gregory in 2010 founded the Veterans and Military Business Owners Association, a nationwide group with 4,500 members and a database of more than 60,000 veteran and service-disabled business owners. The group partnered last year with biotechnology firm Amgen Inc. to produce a conference called "Power Your Business," held at Amgen's conference center in Thousand Oaks. More than 300 people attended.
She's also on the board of the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit veterans advocacy organization working to open a one-stop veterans service center in Ventura County.
"For veterans to be able to go to one place and have all their needs met is a gift. We want Ventura County's veterans to be able to have that," said Gregory, who also serves on California's Interagency Council for Veterans, a nonprofit that helps find jobs, education, housing and health care for veterans.
The business is spearheading a jobs initiative called Hiring America's Heroes. Gregory is asking businesses to pledge jobs for wounded veterans and their spouses, especially jobs that can be done remotely.
"There are tax credits (up to $9,600 per hire) and you get really disciplined, dedicated employees in the process with a work ethic that is second to none. There are so many jobs that are outsourced that can be done by veterans," she said.
CallSource in Westlake Village has signed on, pledging to hire 100 veterans, CallSource CEO Jerry Feldman said. A few years ago, Feldman started a similar program called Pride America to provide training and jobs for veterans and their spouses. CallSource helps businesses improve their performance through the use of call tracking, technology and other methods.
"We have about 15 veterans at CallSource and are hiring some more. We did commit to hiring 100. Debbie Gregory has put our job description on her website and we keep getting more and more veterans," said Feldman, who hired a veteran last week. "This is so satisfying because this woman was losing her home and she now will be able to pay her rent or mortgage. She'll be able to stay in her house."
Gregory was invited in December to a White House reception with President Barack Obama that honored leaders in the veterans community.
"They were quite gracious," Gregory said of the president and first lady Michelle Obama. "It was such an experience being in D.C. because you walk everywhere. I got to meet so many people from other parts of the country working with veterans, too."
Gregory believes that if her father were alive today, he'd be thrilled with her work.
"I didn't set out doing what I'm doing," she said, "but I think I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."