Politics & Government

Tacoma veteran is revved up for State of the Union

Steve Buchanan says there’s an easy way for Americans to show their patriotism: Hire a military veteran to clean your house, get your groceries, help you move.

Buchanan, a 37-year-old veteran and budding entrepreneur from Tacoma, had a big month in December, when his company landed its first job for a fellow veteran, who earned $80 for doing four hours of yard work.

January might be even bigger: Buchanan will be in the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday night when President Barack Obama gives his 2015 State of the Union speech.

Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor who met Buchanan last month, invited him to the speech as his personal guest, hoping to put a spotlight on the fledgling company, called ChooseVets. Each member of Congress is allowed to bring one guest.

“I was pretty jazzed about his idea,” Kilmer said.

It’s a coup of sorts for Buchanan, who has lined up 15 veterans to tackle odd jobs and is busy seeking investment capital and making plans to expand to other cities outside the Puget Sound region. So far, he has raised $175,000.

Buchanan, who served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, joked that he’ll make sure he doesn’t have any spinach stuck in his teeth when he walks into the U.S. Capitol to hear the president give his big speech.

“I think it will be pretty overwhelming,” he said.

Buchanan, a West Point graduate who majored in mathematics, is not your average veteran. After nine years as an infantry officer in the Army, he earned a law degree and a master’s degree in business administration.

Buchanan described the company he created last year as an online marketplace that matches clients with veterans who are carefully vetted. That includes a check of military records to make sure that the prospective employees have been honorably discharged.

With so many veterans unemployed, Buchanan said, more of them deserve a chance to work after they return from war.

“There’s something to be said for this generation of veterans, who work incredibly hard,” he said. “They’re driven and they’ve proven themselves to their country and they’re not going to stop doing that just because they got out of their uniform.”

Buchanan pitched his business model to Kilmer last month at the University of Washington-Tacoma’s Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship, a program that tries to connect veterans with investors and experts to test their ideas.

Kilmer said he decided to invite Buchanan to the State of the Union speech as a way to put a spotlight on veterans’ issues.

“I represent more veterans than any other Democrat (House member) in Congress,” Kilmer said in an interview. “I’m looking forward to sharing this experience with someone who served our country and (who) I think is doing big things for Tacoma.”

Buchanan said his business idea took shape when he was going to law school a couple years ago and he needed to hire movers, finding them online.

“I didn’t know they were going to be as out of shape as they were,” he said. “They weren’t dependable, and I realized I could do a better job.”

He created a veterans’ moving company that grew quickly and soon expanded to include cleaning services. Veterans employed by his new company will focus on “low skill, high volume” tasks such as landscaping, cleaning, moving, running personal errands or doing handyman jobs.

“Any veteran can do those and they don’t need to have a license,” Buchanan said.

He’s making plans to expand to other areas, such as accounting and personal training. And he said the company is making moves to expand in four other markets: Hawaii, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit and Washington, D.C.

Buchanan said he will arrive in Washington, D.C., on Saturday and plans to stay for a week, giving him time to pitch his plans to officials at the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

A divorced father of two, he said he’d been to the nation’s capital a couple times, most recently when he came home from Afghanistan in 2010 and took his children, 11-year-old Stephen and 12-year-old Elizabeth, on a cross-country road trip.

But this time, he said, it will be very different, going to the Capitol accompanied by a U.S. congressman to hear the president of the United States give his major annual speech.

“I heard that it’s kind of a red-carpet event,” Buchanan said. “I’m honored to be going there, around so many people that do so many great things.”