After nine years in the military, including deployment to Iraq in 2004 and 2005, Marine Corps veteran Timothy Jensen said it was a struggle to adjust back to being a civilian again.
"In the civilian world, there's a lot of competition," the Romeoville man says, "a lot of back-stabbing, a lot of people trying to advance their careers and stepping over individuals in the process.
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"That's a real turnoff for people when they go into the active workforce, especially if they're from a situation where you depend on the person that's to your left and to your right ... for your life."
When he left the military, Jensen tried working as a carpenter and going to school.
But he finally found a place of employment that fit him just right. Grunt Style, a Schaumburg-based online retailer, sells military-themed apparel and accessories like T-shirts, athletic gear and posters.
Jensen is one of nearly two dozen veterans who are grateful this Thanksgiving to be working for the startup, and to have a friend in the company's founder and owner, Daniel Alarik.
"What Dan has done here is given an outlet that's more than a career," Jensen said. "We've had a lot of employees that struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, myself being one of those individuals, and being with people that have those same problems and helping others ... it helps me become a better person.
"We all talk, we all work through our problems and it's not something that's a detriment to (our) employment."
Alarik, 31, of Hoffman Estates, said he is conscious about hiring people who have served in the military because he realizes how much many of them miss the "pride in self, military and country" culture.
"I'm still shocked by how more important that environment and culture is (to them) than just a paycheck," Alarik said of his employees. "A lot of the guys feel right at home, almost from day one."
Alarik started the business with some friends while on base in Fort Benning, Ga., where he was an Army drill sergeant. They set up a kiosk at the mall on base and went around to the different units to sell their shirts.
Then, when Alarik moved back to Illinois in summer 2011 -- after 13 years in the Army and deployments to Bosnia and Kosovo -- he ran the business out of his apartment and began researching how to make it grow.
He read dozens of books and took a course at Harper College to help him learn more about running a business.
In August 2012, Alarik had one employee and moved the company into its first office. They outgrew it by December and moved to a new location that was too small by April. Five months ago, Grunt Style moved into its current location, which has a warehouse for designing and printing the T-shirts and another warehouse for packaging.
There are now 34 employees, about 70 percent of which are veterans.
Alarik said he knows firsthand the struggle many veterans have integrating back into society. He was fired six weeks into a job he had shortly after leaving the military because he couldn't adapt to the office culture.
"You go from ... whatever I do, I may live or die or the guy next to me may live or die. You go from that decision process to all of a sudden, what tie should I wear today? It's almost depressing. On top of that, nobody around you can really understand," Alarik said.
"I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing right now, outside of the military," he added. "Part of me would love to be back out in the field with the men, but outside of that, I can't ask for a better life. I get to be with people I wouldn't trade for anything."
Gloria Cantu of Rolling Meadows has been a production team leader since shortly after returning from National Guard training in Missouri and Georgia.
"I could not find a job after I came back. I was doing nothing," she says.
"I'm very thankful to finally have something to do and be part of working here and being responsible for creating products for people that make them happy.
"It's like we're all a big family."
Jason Cisneros of Chicago, an Army combat veteran who deployed to Iraq for 15 months and also was a military policeman in Fort Hood, Texas, said he stumbled across Grunt Style on Facebook earlier this year. He bought a shirt that said "I'll Never Quit" and, two days later, saw there was a job opening at the company.
Cisneros was working in security, but he wasn't happy, so he decided to apply.
"(The security job) was a good gig financially, but I found myself not enjoying going to work," Cisneros said. "It lacked what I had learned to love during my time on active duty, which was the camaraderie among everyone."
Cisneros said now he also views his co-workers as family.
"I wake up and I'm excited," he said. "Since my time on active duty, I can honestly say I'm content. I'm just happy and thankful I found something that fits me."