For Iraq War veteran Bill Vaughn, launching and keeping his construction contracting business afloat has proved far more challenging than his military stint overseas.

Vaughn, 45, is an Encino native who started his career working for construction companies. He signed up with the U.S. Navy as a Seabee right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but served only a few months in Iraq before coming home in August 2003 with some internal injuries and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

He launched BCV Construction in Northridge a few months later, but found it difficult to get work. He believes it is because contractors see him as an unknown commodity, especially so as a disabled veteran.

Vaughn’s difficulties are fairly common among veterans-turned-entrepreneurs. He is one of hundreds of local disabled veteran business owners who plans to attend a business exposition organized by the California Disabled Veterans Business Alliance May 23 and 24 at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel. About 120 exhibitors are scheduled to participate, including Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., Chevron Corp., and numerous federal, state and local agencies.

“We want this event to give maximum exposure to our disabled veteran businesses,” said Robert Brown, president of the business alliance.

Vaughn has an army of company. In 2008, there were 5.5 million veterans in the United States, and 3.4 million had a service-related disability. As conflicts continue in Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of disabled veterans is expected to rise.

Re-adaptation will be an especially acute problem in California, which had more veterans than any state, with 2.1 million. (Florida and Texas followed with 1.7 million each.)

When Vaughn got back from Iraq, he decided to start his own shop because he didn’t think he could take time for his numerous trips to Veterans Affairs doctors while working a full-time schedule for someone else.

He also didn’t think he would fit into a conventional office environment.

“After what I had seen in Iraq, I didn’t feel I was capable of sitting around a water cooler in an office talking the small talk,” he said.

So he decided to start a construction contracting company, not realizing just how difficult that would prove.

“It was almost impossible to get into companies to see the people in charge so I could bid on contracts,” Vaughn said. “They didn’t know me.”

He eventually did gain access to a couple of major construction contractors and managed to get just enough work to keep his company afloat – until the housing collapse hit in 2007. The work stopped and Vaughn’s bouts with post-traumatic stress disorder intensified; he had to file for bankruptcy.

He has had a tough fight to relaunch his business. He thought that the establishment of 3 percent set-asides for disabled veterans for federal, state and city of L.A. contracts in recent years would make things easier, but he found the competition for that work intense.

He’s hoping to make enough contacts at next week’s disabled veterans expo to win more contracts and get his company back on more firm financial footing.

Robert Milton Jr., a Vietnam War veteran who started REM Engineering Co. in Pasadena 32 years ago, also plans to attend.

Milton didn’t have any such business networking opportunities when he came home from the Vietnam War in 1967 after injuring an arm and a leg during combat. The Marine’s wounds have since mostly healed.

When he started his company in 1979 after working at a major engineering and construction firm, there were no government contract set-asides for disabled veterans. Nor were there any conventions for disabled veteran business owners.

“I was pretty much on my own and had to fight my way in through the door at Chevron Corp. to get my first design contract,” he said.

REM slowly grew, reaching 20 employees by 2007. When the recession hit, Milton said he chose to cut back employee hours first, and only laid off two.

Since then, REM has scooped up some work from contractors who went out of business and has benefited from government set-asides for disabled veterans.

Milton said veterans wounded in recent conflicts are regarded much more highly than those of his generation.

“Vietnam was not viewed as an honorable war and we were looked upon with shame, even by some in the business world,” he said. “Things are much different today.”

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