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Thursday, Jul 19, 2018
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New venture helps Tampa veteran see the light

On any given day, you might see retired Navy SEAL Cmdr. Steve Rutherford up on a roof.

But he is not about to jump, or take pot shots at the neighbors.

Although there are no shortages of challenges facing those who have served their country, the story of Rutherford is not about homelessness or suicide or the inability to reintegrate with society.

Rutherford, 47, who served in Africa and Iraq and Afghanistan, is on the roof because he is installing residential solar panel systems for Tampa Energy Solutions, a company he started for the second chapter of his life.

With a personal post-service success story shared by many, Rutherford does not fit the oft-portrayed narrative of what happens when men and women exchange their uniforms for civilian attire.

A decorated combat veteran, and minority and service-disabled small business owner, he is a passionate believer in renewable energy, a passion he developed during his time as a SEAL as it dawned on him how much blood and treasure is spent in the pursuit of earth-wrecking fossil fuels.

Rutherford said he understands the focus on the struggle of veterans, especially around Veterans Day.

After all, the Veterans Administration says that 22 veterans a day take their own lives and that as many as 250,000 veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. About 50,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, according to the department of Housing and Urban Development.

Clearly, 13 years and counting of constant war have wreaked havoc, as have previous conflicts. The concern about veterans stems from increased public awareness of that, Rutherford says.

But most veterans, he says, are like him. Not in distress, despite the challenges.

“I think how veterans are portrayed is largely driven by the overwhelming public perception that no veteran should be homeless, no veteran should be without a job for having served our country and made the sacrifices they have,” Rutherford says. “But in large part, the overwhelming majority of veterans are doing OK. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a tough transition for them.”

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For Rutherford, the transition began well before the end of his military career.

A standout scholastic athlete in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, Rutherford entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1986 hoping to become a fighter pilot. But when an eye test showed he had 20/30 vision, not good enough to fly, he took the SEAL track, eventually going to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs, or BUD/S for short.

While at the training, in Coronado, California, the Persian Gulf War broke out and ended. After BUD/S, Rutherford was assigned to SEAL Team 5, later deploying in October 1993 to Somalia a week after Operation Gothic Serpent, now more commonly known as “Black Hawk Down” went horribly wrong, with 19 U.S. troops killed.

Six years later, Rutherford had a defining moment in his career, and it had nothing to do with the battlefield. In 1999. he was sent to the Naval Post Graduate School for training.

Never a great student before, but “always fascinated with how things work,” he opted to seek a masters in physics. Now armed with science, Rutherford’s next assignment took him to Washington. It was August 2001 and he was tapped to be an assistant program manager, helping modernize the SEALs antiquated minisubmarine system called the SEAL Underwater Delivery Vehicle.

“It was ancient,” Rutherford says. “It had 1980s technology on board. It had an outdated navigation system. No GPS. No ability to communicate with the host submarine.”

After 9/11, Rutherford wanted back in the fight. But his command wanted him to stay and finish the D.C. tour.

“I was frustrated,” he said. “I joined the military to fight wars. To get rid of bad guys.”

Though he wasn’t firing shots at them, Rutherford’s work at the Washington Navy Yard helped toward his goal of taking out the bad guys.

By the time he was done, the SEAL Delivery Vehicle was brought up to speed, with a new satellite communications system, through-water communications systems, modern navigation and other improvements.

“I felt really good about that,” he says.

In 2003, his assignment in Washington ended and Rutherford got his wish, deploying to Iraq with SEAL Team 1 to take part in kill-capture missions against high- and medium-value targets, as well as hunting for weapons of mass destruction. He deployed twice to Iraq over the next two years, and in 2005 took another step toward his post-service career.

He was assigned to the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at the National Defense University. It was a one-year program to integrate the warrior with the industrial base. Rutherford opted to study the energy sector.

“There were uprising situations in Africa and other places that were ignored because the resources weren’t there,” he says, adding that he thought a lot about the connection between energy and war.

“Wars start over energy,” Rutherford says. “What if we could stop war by understanding energy’s role in it?”

For the next year, Rutherford and his classmates toured oil rigs, coal mines, nuclear power plants, wind and solar farms. They met with environmentalists, executives from major oil companies and even the head of OPEC.

Of all those experiences, wind and solar left the most lasting impression, Rutherford says.

“I saw a tremendous opportunity in renewable resources,” he says. “I started to lay the foundation for my future beyond the military. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I knew it would have something to do with energy.”

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Both wars were still raging by the time Rutherford graduated from the industry program, but his days as a door kicker were over. By 2007, he was assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base. With his science and technology background, and track record of success on the SEAL Delivery Vehicle, Rutherford was named an assistant program manager of the command’s surface platform, overseeing development of several kinds of boats for Naval Special Warfare.

Rutherford’s work soon caught the attention of Bill Shepherd, former astronaut and SEAL, who was Socom’s director of science and technology.

“He asked if I could take over the power and energy role,” Rutherford says.

Given that commandos carry as much as 100 pounds of stuff with them, and that so many things require power, it was important to develop small, lighter, portable power sources.

As a crowning achievement, Rutherford was able to develop, test and field a hybrid solar power system that he set up in small bases around Kandahar, Afghanistan. Roughly the size of a shipping container, each system could put out about 40 kilowatts. Setting the systems up and seeing them operate served as yet another epiphany for Rutherford.

“The U.S. was paying $400 a gallon for fuel by the time it got to base camps,” Rutherford says. “People were dying during deliveries. Having these hybrid systems, which run on solar power during the day and batteries at night, reduced the dependence on fuel.”

There was one more benefit, he says. The Afghans, finally having a power source to call their own, not only protected it from destruction, but became much more eager to work with the U.S. as a result.

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Seeing the value of renewable energy, Rutherford started Tampa Energy Solutions after retiring in 2011.

The company, which has five employees and annual revenue of about $300,000, sells and installs solar panels, hot water heaters and other renewable systems for residences. He is bidding for a project at Tampa International Airport to enter the commercial sector as well.

Aside from showcasing what his company offers, its website, tampabaysolar .com, also offers the latest news about renewable energy and efforts to make Florida more solar friendly.

Rutherford says the state has to do a lot more to take advantage of a key component of its nickname.

“Other than the federal tax credits, there is no incentive here,” he says. “That has to change.”

Likewise, service members should remember to take advantage of what the military has to offer and to find their passions, he says,

“Think five to 10 years before leaving about what you want to do next,” Rutherford says.

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(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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