After deciding not to pursue engineering, Calder Curtis, who served in the Air Force, opened Cockpit Craft Distillery in 2016 in Colorado Springs, where he holds a networking night for veterans every Thursday.
After deciding not to pursue engineering, Calder Curtis, who served in the Air Force, opened Cockpit Craft Distillery in 2016 in Colorado Springs, where he holds a networking night for veterans every Thursday.

In 2008, Robert Patton was deployed to Iraq as a mortuary affairs specialist.

He said it was difficult wearing his heavy gear in the desert, where temperatures reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit. But Patton drew inspiration from his perspiration and discomfort. He created a startup called Sheath Underwear, and started selling cooling, breathable undergarments for men online in 2010 while he was transitioning out of the Army. 

At the time, Patton didn’t know the challenges he would face over the next few years, but his startup is what has kept him motivated and focused on the future, rather than dwelling on his past.

Choose your path

Every month, El Paso County sees around 600 military members transition out of the service and into civilian life.

About 25 percent of these veterans will stay in Colorado Springs, according to Nick Palarino, director of partner development at Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center, which offers transition and job placement services to veterans in the Springs.

“When a [servicemember] is transitioning out of the military, they get to choose a path, whether they want to do employment, education or … entrepreneurship,” Palarino said.

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Organizations such as the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center and the Pikes Peak Workforce Center also offer resources to veterans interested in starting their own business, Palarino said.

Transitioning veterans can face challenges in starting a business if they have post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury, or if they are struggling with the changes in their everyday life, said retired Army Colonel and Mt. Carmel Chief Operating Officer Bob McLaughlin.

“That means you’re taking a risk, [but you should] sustain the good things in your life, have a solid support team … [and] the ability to connect to other resources in the community — veterans like like-minded individuals,” he said. “So being able to connect to other veterans that have been successful in other businesses is important because of the culture of teamwork, dedication and loyalty — all of these things are important. … And as you transition out to start a new adventure, it’s great to have other veterans in the community that can help you and give advice on the transition.”

Though he had plans to continue serving in the Army, life didn’t go as expected for Patton. After returning from his second deployment, he said he wasn’t feeling like himself.

“I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do,” he said. “I wasn’t going to work, I wasn’t showing up. … It was the weirdest thing — I was not myself at all. I was fighting with my wife, taking a bunch of prescription pills, thinking that was helping.”

Patton was eventually diagnosed with PTSD. He went to rehab and also went through a divorce.

From 2011 to 2013, Patton worked for a tailor in San Antonio, Texas, which led to his creating a better product for his company. He also attended school studying organizational development at the University of the Incarnate Word. He also received his MBA from the same university in 2015.

Sheath continued to operate online, and Patton was able to use his GI Bill to help pay for his education, which allowed him to maintain his business.

Patton had been stationed at Fort Carson in 2009, and eventually brought his product to Colorado Springs in 2015 after getting his master’s degree.

After using Kickstarter to help fund his company in 2013, Sheath doubled revenue year-over-year. The company made $30,000 in 2013, and this year Sheath has surpassed the $500,000 mark.

“Eventually it starts building your confidence, because once you become successful at something, your peers start to notice you,” Patton said. “You earn their respect and that is huge for people coming out of the Army that feel like they’re damaged.”

Veteran owned 

On April 11, 2016, Calder Curtis, who is in the Air Force reserves, opened Cockpit Craft Distillery after deciding he no longer wanted to pursue an engineering career.

Curtis, who was raised in Castle Rock, was active duty Air Force for four years after high school, working as an aircraft metals technologist in New Mexico. He spent a year deployed in Afghanistan in 2013 and had plans to finish his mechanical engineering degree when he returned, but realized that he didn’t want to sit behind a desk all day.

“They get paid decently, but they’re super stressed out and they’re working 60 to 80 hours a week,” Curtis said.

In 2014, when Curtis returned to the U.S., he got his distillation license and started putting together everything he needed to launch a business.

Located at 4893 Galley Road, Cockpit Craft Distillery, which cost Curtis $200,000 to open, has a tasting room, offers tours and has an extra room that can be reserved. The distillery sells six different homemade spirits, including its SOC-4 Banana Booze and P-38 Clear Lightning Moonshine.

Curtis put his Air Force welding training to good use, building the still and the bar himself.

Curtis said he has used management and people skills learned in the armed forces, as well as the military mindset of, “You don’t go to bed until the mission is complete,” to run his business.

“That happens a lot around here,” Curtis said. “There have been plenty of times where I’ve seen the sun go down and come right back up again.”

Though Curtis didn’t initially advertise his business as veteran-owned, he said he realized after networking that he had more support in the veteran community than he expected.

“It became very obvious right off the bat that people are really embracive of veteran-owned businesses,” Curtis said. “There is actually a real person who puts on boots every day, a normal Joe who owns the business, not just someone who got a big fat loan from their parents or won the lottery.

“So the one thing I’ve loved is that, for networking, veteran groups have been absolutely phenomenal.”

Many service members get out of the military and have nothing to motivate them, he said.

“Too often people are getting out of the military … and say, ‘Uncle Sam didn’t teach me how to do anything but kill people, I’m worthless,’” Curtis said.

Veterans often go from working toward a mission on a grand scale to a regular job, which can feel like a mundane existence, Patton said.

“[Some] of my friends have killed themselves, because they didn’t have anything to be passionate about and I’m really lucky to have it,” he said. “You have to have something to live for. It gives me a reason to wake up, it gives me an opportunity to help other people through employment and creative endeavors, it allows to me to be part of a team that is as close to the Army as I could be without being in the Army. I have my own army, which has a mission and we work toward that mission together.”