Joe Zink, owner of Zink, Inc., Fort Wayne, Ind., served a tour of duty in Vietnam. His unit was often under siege by North Vietnamese troops. He witnessed ambushes by the enemy and a friendly fire attack by U.S. forces. His company suffered heavy casualties.

The life-or-death struggles he faced then have strengthened his resolve to overcome obstacles today.

“There is no situation in life that can scare you more than that,” he said.

The recent Persian Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm, left lasting psychological and physical wounds on veterans who served there. One Indiana contractor described his experience.

“I had suffered a heart attack and was near death,” said Steve Adams, co-owner of Mark’s Heating & Air Conditioning, Decatur, Ind. “The army sent for my wife and the doctors only gave me a couple of hours to live.”

Adams recovered and returned to Kuwait to serve two more tours of duty.

Veterans like Frank Alexander, owner of Aire-Flo Heating & Cooling, Columbus, Ohio, were a reassuring sight to soldiers serving in the South Pacific in World War II. Alexander commanded a bomb disposal unit.

“We got a lot of respect and usually didn’t get a lot of lip from people,” Alexander said.

Not all veteran contractors joined wartime hostilities. Some served their country in peacetime, while gaining valuable work experience for the future. Bill Semitekol, owner of Duo-Temp Inc., Schaumburg, Ill., learned the hvacr trade while stationed in Germany. He also became a jack-of-all-trades in the construction business.

“I worked on refrigerated trucks and even repaneled my company commander’s office,” he joked.

Some of the contractors used their military experience to gain a foothold in the hvacr business. Others just happened to stumble across the trade after trying other careers.

A time for contractor-veterans to pause and reflect

Frank Alexander’s Memorial Day plans always include a round of golf with an ex-Marine Korean veteran, an ex-helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam, and a former Naval officer.

The World War II Army vet and owner of Aire-Flo Heating & Cooling in Columbus, Ohio always adds one gesture to his routine golf game. He and his playing partners will pause for a moment of silence at 11 a.m. to honor the many veterans who served in the military and who gave their lives for their country.

The gesture comes at a time of day when the Armistice, signaling the end of World War I, was signed.

Alexander is one of several contractors whose career in the military left a profound impression on their personal and professional lives. From World War II to the Persian Gulf War, their range of experiences include some very interesting stories.

World War II

Alexander had a military occupation that took him to a lot of important locations in the Philippines and Japan during the war. He was counted on to ensure the safety of the military wherever he worked. Alexander’s classification was Commanding Officer of the 210th U.S. Army Bomb Disposal unit.

“I really don’t know why I took the job. It was an interesting experience,” he said. “I didn’t lose any men, but all but one of them received a Purple Heart [for wounds received]. I think we averaged a blow per day. Our job was to clear ammo, bombs, and booby traps.”

Alexander enlisted in the Army in September 1942, and served in active duty in the Pacific Theatre from March 1943 until June 1944. He eventually left the service in July 1946 with, among other awards, a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

Among his fondest memories were two encounters with General Douglas MacArthur. While disposing of depth charges in MacArthur’s waterfront command center in the Philippines, Alexander had a chance meeting with the famous general.

“I was hanging from the girders over the water and I heard that he was upstairs,” recalled Alexander. “I told someone to tell him to ‘get the hell out of there.’ MacArthur stuck his head through a hole and asked who I was. I told him and reminded him that anybody above where I was working had to leave the building.”

MacArthur ordered Alexander to his office, where the general “reamed him” for not wearing insignia on his uniform, but wound up giving Alexander a pass to go anywhere in the Philippines, which included inviting his wife.

Two days later, Alexander encountered MacArthur again.

“We had a type-A bomb, a ticker, and we were going the wrong way down a one-way street, trying to get it out of the city before it blew,” he added. “All of a sudden, MacArthur’s limousine turned on the street. The Filipino driver saw what was happening and drove the limo right into a store window.”

Segue to hvac

Alexander eventually returned to Purdue University and received his mechanical engineering degree. From there he went to work in research and development for Lennox.

In 1951, he signed on as Aire-Flo’s first salesman. He later became president and bought out his partners.

He has recently changed the course of his business, steering away from new construction and concentrating on add-on and replacement work. Alexander employs about 20 people. His markets include mostly residential work, with a little bit of light commercial thrown in.

He has some concerns about issues in his geographical area and in the hvacr trade as a whole.

“I am working on mandatory licensing of contractors through my work with the state legislature,” he said. “The consolidators are starting to move into the area and the atmosphere is bound to change. I’m also watching utilities because we have a deregulation bill in the legislature.

“These are all issues we have to deal with if we are to stay competitive.”

The Vietnam War

In 1968, Joe Zink wasn’t too sure what he wanted to do with his life. The owner of Zink, Inc., a mechanical contractor in Fort Wayne, Ind., had just dropped out of college. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was deepening.

Zink was drafted.

“Once you dropped out, Uncle Sam came knockin’,” he said. “A good deal of us wound up in the 101st Airborne because the Army needed to fill up the infantry ranks.”

Zink was sent to the northern regions of Vietnam near the ancient city of Hue, in the A Shau Valley. The valley was a corridor for the North Vietnamese to ship supplies down to its troops in South Vietnam.

“We were trying to interrupt that supply line,” Zink said. “We operated in Triple Canopy Jungle, which was very thick and overgrown. Air war was ineffective in there. It was so thick, we had to blast holes in the jungle for helicopters to come in with supplies.”

The 101st eventually redirected to an area between Hue and Da Nang, where it conducted a series of ambushes on North Vietnamese troops who would come down from mountainous regions during the night to get food and conduct assassinations of village residents.

Zink’s company paid a heavy price for success.

“We took a lot of casualties, like 40% to 50% in the first month,” he said. “We were under constant mortar fire.”

At one point, Zink and two other soldiers were pinned down by missile and machine gun fire, but managed to pull back to their company without being hit.

“I was never hit except by some shrapnel,” he added. “A number of my friends were killed or wounded. I fired my weapon a lot, but I don’t know if I killed anyone. I certainly didn’t want [to kill].

“It wasn’t like we were fighting Nazis. But if you let hatred take a hold of you when you watch a comrade die, then it makes it easier [to kill].”

You can learn from anything

Zink said his experiences in Vietnam did him a lot of good, because he was an irresponsible young man when he went in. Like many other young men, he was thrust into leadership roles because so many commanders were killed or wounded.

“It was a hell of a confidence builder,” he added. “Without that experience, I doubt I would have gone into business for myself.”

Zink served his one-year tour of duty in Vietnam and came back to the states. After a total of 20 months in the service, he was offered an early out. He toyed with the idea of re-enlisting and flying a helicopter, but he opted to leave the military.

“When I got out, I decided I wanted to go into sales,” he said. “But that only lasted a month. I saw an ad for a heating and air conditioning apprentice. I thought this would be a chance to learn about the trade and then get into hvac sales.

“I started working in the field and liked it so much, I signed up for vocational school. I eventually worked my way up until I opened my own business in 1986.”

Zink worked out of a garage in one of his rental properties and the businesses eventually grew to the point where he opened a sheet metal shop in Fort Wayne, keeping his office in his home. He recently built a barn next to his house for his new office.

Zink employs nine workers and keeps six trucks on the road. He does mostly light commercial new construction and some service work. Much of his work is with a few general contractors who often construct pre-engineered buildings.

“We do two or three big chillers a year and some schools,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to get jobs, but not too easy to man them. We’ve grown every year, but it is a controlled growth. I’d like to double my size in five years.”

Persian Gulf War

The tranquil setting of Midwest rural America is a far cry from what Steve Adams experienced during his days in the Persian Gulf. The co-owner of Mark’s Heating & Air Conditioning in Decatur, Ind., saw a side of war that haunts his memories.

Adams saw the inside of a lot of barracks before he finally made his way to Kuwait in 1990. Some stops included basic training at Fort Dix, and active duty in Panama and Germany.

He was an E-6, non-commissioned U.S. Army officer, responsible for direct support maintenance of the Tiger Brigade. His unit was attached to a Marine Division in the forward areas of Kuwait. Since the Marines were using the M-1 Abrams Army tank, they needed maintenance support from qualified Army personnel.

The Marines’ mission was to go into Kuwait City and destroy Iraqi troops that were occupying the city. Many of the troops fled the city via the Bazar Road, also known as the “Highway of Death.” Adams said the scenes he witnessed were graphic.

“The Iraqis were stealing anything they could get their hands on and heading back out on the Bazar Road,” he said. “The Air Force was firing on them and they were hitting land mines. There were thousands of destroyed vehicles sitting in the mile-wide road. And there were body parts everywhere. We had to go in and collect the bodies, put them in a pit, and set fire to them.”

Among the many medals he was awarded during the campaign, Adams received the Bronze Star for rescuing two Marines whose tank had been disabled by a land mine. He was able to bring them out of the field by following carefully marked roads, which highlighted the locations of many of the buried mines.

Besides the mental toll, the war took a serious physical toll on Adams. He suffered a heart attack and at one point was near death. He eventually recovered, but he suffered other setbacks. The rigors of parachuting and the strain of heavy lifting damaged his shoulders and upper arms to the point where he needed reconstruction of both shoulders. Despite all of this, he returned for three tours of duty in the Gulf.

Adams is sure he came away from the conflict with some type of illness. But he can’t put his finger on it.

“Something is different,” he said. “I’m often fatigued, or in pain, or feeling very stressed. Something happened there, but I’m not sure what it was.”

Getting out in a timely manner

Adams called it quits after serving 11 years. His mind was willing to continue to serve, but his body wasn’t. Besides, he didn’t want to start a new career at middle age.

“I’m glad I got out when I did,” he said. “I didn’t want to start out new at the age of 40.”

With a background in hvac installation work and with the help of the Army, Adams went to work for Mark Bulmahn. The Army paid half of his wages and bought his tools under a vocational rehabilitation program.

Adams worked his way into a position where he could afford to buy into the business. Today, he and two other partners (including Bulmahn) run the residential-light commercial shop along with 35 employees. Sales volume is expected to top the $3 million mark this year.

Although the partners have been courted by consolidators, Adams said he prefers to remain independent and work to build the business. He hopes to expand more into service contracting while continuing to develop commercial strip malls and rental housing.

He said his training in the military has come in handy in his business life.

“I enjoyed the service and troubleshooting work I did in the military,” he said. “Being a leader also enhanced my people skills. I think a good serviceman has to have a lot of self-confidence to succeed. The military taught me that.”

Peacetime service

Chris Colditz and Bill Semitekol know each other pretty well. The suburban Chicago contractors have developed a friendship and business relationship through their local ACCA chapter. In fact, their businesses are only a few miles apart.

However, their common thread goes back a lot farther than their hvacr roots. It dates back to the early 1960s, when both were stationed in Germany, serving in the U.S. Army. Ironically, neither one knew the other at the time.

Colditz, who owns and operates Laco Mechanical Services out of his home in Palatine, Ill., served as a light vehicle mechanic and a customs inspector-traffic manager while stationed in Munich. Semitekol worked in the hvac field while stationed in Stuttgart.

Colditz took the conventional way into Europe. Semitekol, however, didn’t.

Semitekol was assigned for active duty in Vietnam. His plane left Fort Ord, Calif., bound for Hawaii. From there, he and several other soldiers were to catch a connecting flight to Vietnam. Things didn’t work out.

“Our plane developed mechanical problems and had to turn back,” he said. “Passengers were angry but we [soldiers] were all celebrating. We waited for new orders and eventually were shipped out to Germany.”

While waiting for those orders, Semitekol spent a lot of time wondering where he’d wind up. His aviation unit included 10 pilots and a full crew of mechanics.

“We had one plane and another one that didn’t work,” he said. “We had nothing — no ammunition and no spare parts — everything went to Vietnam.”

Colditz’ path to Europe wasn’t quite as winding. He enlisted in the Army at age 17, not knowing what he wanted to do. “I just wanted to get away from home,” he said. “With my mechanical background, I was made a light vehicle mechanic.”

After being stationed at various bases in the states, Colditz was sent to Europe where his unit was attached to a non-combat, military police outfit. His assignment involved a lot of city police work in Munich.

He returned to the United States four years later in late 1963.

“When I got back I had three months left in my enlistment,” he said. “I could see that if I re-enlisted, I’d be sent to Vietnam. So I chose to end my career after five years. I had a family to think about.”

The GI Bill

When he got out, his career began as a mechanic for Sears in Chicago. From there he enrolled in hvac school under the GI Bill.

He landed a job with a company that sold coal and oil and performed service on furnaces. He learned his service skills on oil furnaces and eventually worked his way into service on forced-air units.

“When I hit 40, I decided to make a change,” he said. “I was tired of working for somebody else.”

Colditz has always operated out of his home. He employs three people and works in the residential and light commercial markets.

He hopes to retire in 10 years. Meanwhile, he is looking for controlled growth and is keeping an eye on industry trends, including the shortage of qualified techs.

After his enlistment was up, Semitekol returned to Duo-Temp, where he had worked for his father prior to enlisting. His road to working in hvac hit one more bump before he settled in as a service technician.

“The day I got sent home from Fort Dix, I got in a motorcycle accident,” he said. “I was laid up for six months.”

Semitekol eventually took over the business in 1979. Since then he has brought his son in to work with him. He has also acquired two other residential contractors and is looking to purchase a commercial company this summer.

While mirroring the method of consolidation (tucking in satellite companies), Semitekol is keeping a watchful eye on the actual consolidators. Blue Dot has been in touch, but one other company really grabbed his attention.

“I’m concerned with Service Master,” he said. “They are going to be a force to deal with.”