Field to Market

Houston’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are at last coming home—to a city and battles their training never prepared them for.

By Kerry H. Photography by Jill Hunter October 31, 2013 Published in the November 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Nicole Baldwin is the rare skincare-line pitchwoman who is also a veteran of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Image: Jill Hunter

Nicole Baldwin pushed a chair up to the stove, clambered up high, and grabbed the pot bare-handed. Startled by the pain in her seared hands, she fell back and spilled scalding water over her face and chest. She doesn’t remember much after that, though she does recall someone cutting a melted sweater from her chest.

“All the skin on her chin just peeled off,” recalls her grandmother, “like an onion.” Nicole Baldwin is the color of coffee, but she had gone Barbie-pink from her chin to the middle of her chest. In the emergency room, the doctor said she had sustained third degree burns over 10 percent of her body.

When the family came home from the hospital, her grandmother struggled to recall a treatment her own grandmother, a Native American descended from the Blackfoot tribe, had used to address skin problems. She blended honey, sulfur, weeds, and other ingredients, and massaged the resulting paste into Baldwin’s chest, face, and hands three times a day for months. Baldwin also wore a “compression garment,” a vest prescribed by the doctor to mitigate the formation of scar tissue on her chest. All these years later, her grandmother observes with some satisfaction, “there isn’t a scar on her face.” Baldwin’s only physical reminder of the incident is some pink, mottled skin on her chest, easily hidden by makeup.

I learned of Baldwin’s story not long ago, in a fairly unusual way for a journalist: she came to me. I was not immediately receptive. When I picked up my ringing phone I initially heard silence on the other end of the line, as if the caller had forgotten she had dialed. 

Baldwin then introduced herself hurriedly and began trying to pitch me a story on her own all-natural, “organic,” not-very-exciting-sounding line of skincare products, at which point I began to look for ways to gracefully exit the conversation. Halfway through the conversation, there was a loud bang. The line crackled.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Oh,” she said. “I am at a shooting range.”

“You’re calling me from a shooting range?”

“Yeah,” she said, “I’m in Fort Knox.”

Nicole Baldwin is the rare skincare-line pitchwoman who is also a veteran of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like the 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers who will return to the Houston area this year, and indeed every year for the next decade, Baldwin is managing the transition to Houston’s economy from wartime service and a subsequent stint as an overseas contractor. We’ve perhaps grown used to hearing about the most dramatic cases of culture shock—soldiers suffering from the hyper-alertness of PTSD, for example, or forced to relearn to use their own bodies after losing a limb. But for many of the thousands returning to this area, who may or may not have seen combat, the challenges will be far less obvious. They will have to deal with learning to structure their own time, soften their language in a corporate setting, and, perhaps most importantly, sell their experience to the wider world.

“The biggest challenge,” says Buddy Grantham, Houston’s voluble director of veterans affairs, “is getting the veteran to effectively get his resume not to smell like combat boots,” by which he means getting said veteran to communicate his competence for something beyond military service. It turns out that this can be a challenge even when applying for a government job with… Veterans Affairs. 

 “You’ve got this constant gap of understanding, with military guys not being able to translate their experience,” says Grantham. “My own assistant, when I got his resume, they said he wasn’t qualified because they didn’t understand his military job titles. An Embarkment NCO coordinates movement, transportation, and communication. He had to work with the local mayor and staff for all of these ceremonies. What does that mean to an HR person? It doesn’t mean anything.”

Baldwin grew up in the Los Angeles area, where she and her mother were homeless for a period, and moved to Houston to be with her extended family at 16. She enrolled in Alief’s Elsik High School. There is nothing of the tomboy in her, and she surprised everyone when, in 2001, she enlisted in the US Army. “I was a girly girl!” she says. “I wasn’t thinking about rolling around in dirt. A recruiter came to my school, and after that the next thing I know I am in the recruiter’s office, and then I am off to Missouri for basic training.”

Which is not to say that Baldwin was a reluctant recruit. Even as her fellow soldiers teased her—“March, Baldwin, this isn’t a catwalk!” she recalls a fellow soldier shouting—she was fairly desperate to launch her military career overseas. After basic training, she was sent to Mississippi’s Camp Shelby, where she was disappointed to find that she had not been called up. “I was literally asking everybody, how can I get to Iraq? And people were looking at me crazy like, ‘who volunteers for that?’” There was a much less enthusiastic woman in the unit, a mother who did not want to be separated from her children, and Baldwin offered to take her place. “I wanted to experience history,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

Baldwin decamped for Iraq as a unit supply specialist, charged with getting soldiers what they required to wage war, from uniforms to medicine. She spent a year in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where 10 times a day rocket-propelled grenades would land somewhere on the base, forcing her and others into shelters. When her eight-month tour was over, she chose to ship right off again, this time to Afghanistan for 14 more months. A few months into her time at Bagram Airfield, some Afghans managed to get onto the base wearing American uniforms, flag down a truck, and kill a driver. Thirty Americans and eight Afghans died when a Chinook crashed leaving the base. 

Violence was the backdrop of Baldwin’s daily life, and it’s easy to forget, back home, that being part of an occupying Army does not mean the mundane annoyances of life dissipate. Amidst the deaths in Afghanistan, Baldwin grew annoyed by the sorry state of her skin, which, like the skin of the other soldiers, had become dry and prone to break-outs in the sand-swept, arid climate. 

Nights on the base, awake in her “B-hut,” a cramped, semi-permanent structure in which she slept with five other women, Baldwin remembered her grandmother’s strange, comforting emollients. She called home and asked for the recipe. And she began ordering, from Amazon, ingredients to add to her grandmother’s paste—vitamin A, vitamin E, and green tea. She ordered, too, commercial skincare products so she knew what she was up against, and what might be improved. 

She experimented in the base bathrooms, in Styrofoam cups obtained from the dining facility. It didn’t always work. One mask made her skin so dry it peeled; another made her break out. Once her time in active duty ended, Baldwin returned happily to Houston with a business idea: Biao skincare, her own line of products descended from her grandmother’s recipes and modified in the harsh climate of Afghanistan. It was, in the manner of all things military, an acronym: “beautiful inside and out.” Now she just needed seed money. 

“As a veteran, everyone tells you, ‘oh, you’re a veteran, you qualify for this, you qualify for that,’” says Baldwin. “All this stuff because I’m a veteran. And I get on the Internet and I’m like, ‘I don’t see any of this stuff!’ You always have that one person who doesn’t have any money trying to tell you how to get all the money.”

She applied for a number of small business loans, to no avail. She did know of one way to earn some money—as a contractor doing logistics supply in Afghanistan. And so she returned to Bagram, whereupon her experimentation phase grew more intense. 

That she worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for her employer—normal hours for “mission-essential personnel”—provided something of a challenge, but she reserved the hours from 6 in the evening until 2 in the morning to contact labs in the US, read studies on the efficacy of biochemical compounds, and test her products on the available guinea pigs, her fellow women employees, who were about 10 percent of the workforce. She filmed them testifying to the results. “I am Sergeant Forbes,” declares a fatigues-wearing, formidable-looking woman in one of the testimonials, “and I really enjoy using Biao skincare products.” Says a heavily accented woman from Uzbekistan, “I worked in Afghanistan under hard conditions, and this product keeps my skin smooth, silky, and refreshed all the time.” 

Baldwin herself, working off of four hours sleep, did not typically look refreshed. One day, when her superiors pulled her into an office and demanded to know why she appeared so tired, she told them she was taking online classes and working toward a degree.

After her years abroad, Baldwin finally decided to come home for good in January 2012. In one sense, Houston is arguably an easy place to come home to. “This is the South!” says Bryan Escobedo, a public relations manager at a Heights-based nonprofit called Lone Star Veterans, which trains post-9/11 veterans in resume-building and interviewing before connecting them to amenable employers. Escobedo thinks that Houston just may be the most military-positive city in America. There’s a better chance in Texas than, say, in Rhode Island, that someone in your workplace will have served in the military and therefore understand how one set of achievements might translate to another. But even in Houston, Escobedo says, veterans are generally underemployed relative to their skills. 

“Employers always want to hire veterans for labor jobs,” says Escobedo, even when they are qualified to take on much more responsibility. He himself is a Purple Heart veteran of the Marines who did three tours in Iraq. As a Marine, he operated six ranks above his level when he was called to do so. When he saw his fellow soldiers falling to IEDs for lack of knowledge, he designed and taught a course on how to identify them, training 800 soldiers in a few weeks. Back home at 23, the only job he could find was selling alarm systems door to door, which, he says, “was not conducive to emotional health.” The next job he found was with a fertilizer plant. “Like a hundred thousand other veterans, I turned to labor. So I am shoveling dirt onto a conveyer belt and there is all this dust and dirt, I am in there with a gas mask, it’s 100 degrees, you’re muddy, mud’s getting in my eye. I’m like, you know what? This does not dignify my professional experience. I quit.”

Escobedo attributes his frustration to the fact that he had no idea how to write a resume, a skill for which the military did not prepare him, despite what he calls a “death by PowerPoint” session at the end of his service. That would be TAP, the Transition Assistance Program, a three- to five-day program at which a soon-to-be vet might be taught, say, a “5-Step Decision Making Method for Developing a Change Management Plan” as stated in the 274-page participant guide. Stephen Freeman, a veteran who teaches career workshops at Lone Star Veterans, points out the disparity between boot camp and TAP. “They spend between six and 13 weeks making you what they want you to be,” he says, “but three to five days turning you back into a civilian. There’s a big disparity there.”

At Lone Star Veterans, Freeman and Escobedo are confronted with former service members who have no idea how to communicate their skills to employers; and even if they get in the door, might not have the best interview skills. Escobedo tells a story about an applicant with decades of military experience who interviewed for a corporate job, stiffly repeating the employer’s questions and yelling the answers, drill-sergeant-like, throughout the exchange. When asked what policy he would implement, the veteran said that he would whip all the fat people in the office into shape. He did not get the job. 

By the time Baldwin came home, she had translated all that late-night experimenting into an original formulation that included babasou oil from the Amazon and a Swiss medicinal formulation called EpiCalmin TCM. She had found a North Carolina–based lab and a California-based company to take care of packaging. And though she was at first skeptical that being a veteran would help her get a loan, a veteran-friendly nonprofit called The People Fund came through with $50,000. She had a tested product, funds, and time. She did not have sales. The project that lay before her, like the project before so many returning soldiers, was communicating to a new audience: civilians. 

It was a job for which Baldwin was especially gifted. When she met People Fund CEO Gary Lindner at an event in Houston, he was charmed enough to invite her to McLean, Virginia, to represent the organization at a pitch competition. Baldwin had so little sales experience at the time she wasn’t technically qualified to compete with her one-minute pitch, so she planned to go and listen rather than participate. But while there, she was pressured into performing. When it came time to pitch for real, she was one of 24 finalists selected. 

I visited Baldwin in her Katy home in July. She had, for our meeting, assembled a display of her mask and cleanser, their very attractive boxes, a vase-ful of pink flowers reminiscent of those on the box, and laminated materials explaining the company’s mission. Behind this display were two portraits of her, both painted at Afghan bazaars. At times, our conversation would stray from Biao. “This is a knife given to me by Special Forces,” she said, taking a knife and strap out of a box, and posing with it girlishly against her leg. “You wear it like this.” She then placed the knife beside the vase of flowers, and continued.

“That’s an inspiration board,” she said, gesturing toward a piece of posterboard underneath a set of markers. “You use it to write down your dreams and goals.” On her iPad she had composed a list of magazines she wanted to be in—among them Essence, O, Self, and this magazine. There was also a press release she had penned that began: “Severe facial burns. Homeless. Deployed to Afghanistan with the United States Army.” That was about the time I began to feel I was telling a story that had already been written by the story’s subject, a woman who had broken through to me because she was the one veteran out of a thousand who knew, by some instinct, exactly how to frame her background. 

And then there was the white piece of paper with all the jagged holes in it, displayed prominently before the fireplace, apparently for my benefit. 

“What’s that?” I asked. 

“Oh,” she said. “That’s the target from the day I called you.”

Baldwin’s products have been featured on ABC News, The Huffington Post, and a number of smaller industry magazines like Organic Spa. Most everything mentions her status as a veteran, which, in a country willing to tolerate criticism of a war but not criticism of those who volunteered to fight it, is almost certainly a smart business move. What one gathers, as Nicole Baldwin leads you through the plot points she wants you to take in, is that the veterans who succeed will be the ones who can sell their stories in a way the rest of us can understand. 

Bryan Escobedo decided, after his years at the fertilizer plant, that it was time to go back to school. Irrespective of the struggles he’d had conveying his competence to Houston employers, he never struggled when choosing his major. He’ll graduate in May, with a degree in communications. 

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