From Military Service to Venture Capitalist
Transitioning from military to civilian life was an arduous journey for Les Craig, until he found Montana. Craig grew up in the blue-collar town of Erie, Pennsylvania. During his childhood, his singular goal was to “make it out of Erie.”
“I wanted a better life than what middle America and working in the factories had to offer me. At the time I thought the only way out for me was joining the Army,” he says.
Craig saw two options—become a doctor, or become a lawyer. His only option for affording medical school was through the military, so he applied to and was accepted into the US Military Academy at West Point, and began working toward his degree. Still, by his sophomore year, he decided he no longer wanted to be a doctor. He’d had a taste of the mountains and would rather be out hiking and biking on the weekends than studying flashcards like most of his classmates. He didn’t think he was cut out for medical school.
Craig went to his tactical officer to apply for a transfer, explaining that he no longer wanted to be in the Army. He was not let off the hook so easily. Before signing the transfer paperwork, his officer insisted he shadow a unit. Craig was sent out to shadow in Europe; it was his first time out of the country, and he was assigned to an aero medevac unit. He spent the summer hanging out with helicopter pilots, flying up and down the Rhine River, and partying at German pubs. When he returned to the States right before his junior year at West Point, he decided to stay the course but switched his major to Applied Math and Computer Science.
A month and a half after he returned from Europe was September 11, 2001. “For the first time in my life, I felt a calling to serve,” says Craig. “It was like a switch was flipped in me—I wanted to serve and I wanted to be on the front lines.”
Craig graduated from West Point in 2003. He served as a US Army Infantry Platoon Leader (173rd Airborne Brigade and 1st Ranger Battalion), serving on multiple special operations task forces, as well as an Aide-de-camp.
“I met the woman who would become my wife in 2007,” says Craig. “At the time our son was born, I thought I would be a career officer in the Army—I quickly realized that there was no way I would be able to be the husband and father I wanted to be if I stayed in the military.”
With a brand-new bride and a brand-new baby, Craig left his military life and set out to find a new path, but it didn’t come as easily as he’d expected. “I felt a little bit like a lost puppy without any direction at first,” he says. Craig took a job in the applied physics lab at John Hopkins, working with a team of mathematicians building models for commanders on battlefields. “There was a communication gap between the mathematicians and frontline soldiers, so I became somewhat of a data whisperer, building models to predict explosive devices. It was meaningful work, but I spent my days sitting at a desk for 12 hours a day. I struggled with depression and weight gain.” Craig was dealing with the aftermath of a TBI after being shot in the helmet in Afghanistan in 2005—an injury that had never been physically or emotionally addressed.
A few years later, Craig’s wife, Anne Meree, started the non-profit foundation, The COMMIT Foundation, to help veteran service members adjust to civilian life after returning home. “It seemed my struggles post-military were only getting worse, so I attended a partner foundation program based out of Gallatin Gateway in Montana,” says Craig. The program consisted of a week out in the woods, practicing mindfulness. The week following was spent connecting in the outdoors with family.
“My son was four at the time, and my daughter was two, and it felt like it was the first time I had been present and engaged with them; the experience changed my whole life, and I basically decided we needed to move to Montana,” says Craig.
Moving to Montana became Craig’s driving motivation and goal. In the meantime, he started a tech company and continued working long hours at a desk. He spent three years looking for work opportunities in Montana and had all but given up when he was offered a job as the Executive Director of the Montana State University Innovation Campus and the Blackstone LaunchPad.
“We moved our family to Montana, and I traded my hour and a half commute by car to a bike ride through a farmer’s field,” says Craig. That move made all the difference for Craig and his family.
“I’m all around a healthier person here,” he says. “The biggest changes have been access to the outdoors, the space to be present, and the welcoming community. There are so many healthy social activities to do that lead to productive behaviors.”
Craig is now a general partner at Next Frontier Capital, where he has led the investments and serves on the special board.tv, S2 Corporation, Bandwango, Everyonesocial, and Gravwell.
“The first piece of advice I’d give veterans who are struggling to re-enter civilian life is to be real with yourself. You must recognize that this transition can take years sometimes,” he says.
“Take a tactical pause—just like before starting a mission when you stop to look, listen, smell, breathe, think, and take everything in—take the time to pause and get well, be vulnerable, and lean on the people who love you who will see you through this period. Once you get healthy, you can make progress redefining value and meaning in your life—for me, that was living in the right environment, and for me, that’s Montana.”