Making Their Own Way
Sep 18, 2018 09:40AM
By Howard K. Marcus
James E. Walker was one who learned how to work as an individual. Joining the U.S. Army was an easy decision for him.
“I just had no sense of direction,” he says.
It was 1979, and Walker—who had dropped out of high school two years earlier—saw a lot of merit to the idea of getting three hot meals daily, a place to stay, and a monthly paycheck.
“It was a no-brainer to me,” says Walker, now 57 and owner of Custom Diesel Drivers Training, an Omaha truck-driving school that trains about 300 students a year.
He served in the Army just after the Vietnam War, and was a recovery specialist whose job was to retrieve broken equipment from the front lines and bring it in for repair. Among his tools were a 28-wheel tractor/trailer and a 5-ton wrecker.
The work suited him.
“I was around trucks quite a bit growing up,” says Walker, clarifying the age he started working with trucks was about 9.
While growing up in southwest Iowa, he lived across the street from a man who had a couple of semi-trailer trucks, and young Walker sometimes drove them.
“That wasn’t too legal,” he says. “I couldn’t even touch the pedals. Just turn on the key, shove it into gear, and get rolling.”
Walker enjoyed his time in the Army, and considering re-enlisting as his hitch was coming to an end in 1982. But he had recently married Bonnie (now his wife of 37 years), and his next posting would have been in Germany. The couple had a baby on the way, and she didn’t want to go overseas. Instead, the couple moved to Colorado.
After James left the military, the transition to civilian employment wasn’t easy. Much of the problem had to do with the difference between military and civilian management styles.
“When you’re in the military, they pretty much give you a mission, and you go and do the mission,” he says. “It just doesn’t work that way in the real world, because too many people are breathing down your neck, watching what you’re doing all day. It’s a real pain.”
Supervisors’ training also differed between military and civilian life. In the Army, he says, those who tell others what to do are already skilled in those tasks. That isn’t always the case in the civilian world, as Walker discovered in some of his post-military jobs in construction and manufacturing.
“You’ve got people who are telling you what to do when they don’t even know how to do it themselves,” he says.
He eventually worked for a plastics injection-molding company—an opportunity that would put his career path on a new road.
“I was able to work my way into driving the truck for them, which really worked out well for me,” Walker says. The job lasted four years, with two years spent driving the truck and the rest managing the company’s warehouse.
What followed were 22 years of over-the-road semi-trailer truck driving, “hauling swinging beef out to Hunt’s Point, New York—stuff like that,” he says. Walker also drove grain trucks and flatbeds.
He and Bonnie eventually moved to Omaha, near her hometown of Gretna. As their two children headed toward their teen years, Walker began driving trucks locally, which went on for a decade.
He then became an instructor at Custom Diesel Drivers Training, and after a year was offered the opportunity to purchase the then-nearly bankrupt school.
“They sold it to me for a ridiculous low price,” he says. “I couldn’t turn it down. I had nothing to lose by buying it.”
Since Walker purchased it, the school has grown, going from one truck, one trailer, and one office employee to six trailers, six trucks, and nine office employees. The office, formerly in a 700-square-foot space near Sapp Bros., recently moved to a 10,000-square-foot office at 5020 L St.
Many of the school’s students are veterans. Walker says the trucking industry offers them an opportunity to—as in the military—work without interference.
“That’s the freedom of driving a truck and being your own boss,” he says.
For veteran Dario Dulovic, 43, being in a wartime environment was nothing new.
Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina (formerly Yugoslavia), Dulovic’s first experience with war happened at age 18, when an early 1990s religious conflict between Orthodox Christians and Muslims tore his country apart.
His father owned a pizza restaurant, but that ended when the war broke out.
“We lost everything in about 10 days,” he says. “So we had to run to Montenegro.”
Dulovic’s family—including his father, mother, and sister—lived in that small southeast Europe country for about four years, then emigrated to America.
With help from the U.S. government, they settled in Danville, Kentucky. The family received a month’s rent and three months of food stamps.
Dulovic’s knowledge of America had come through the movies, most of which were set in large cities such as New York and Chicago. Danville, with a population of about 16,500, was not one of those.
“It was an experience,” Dulovic says.
As the only family member who could speak English, Dulovic found himself bearing a lot of responsibility. He found a factory job and went to work.
“I was supporting everyone for three or four months,” he says.
Six months later, he joined the Kentucky National Guard as a way of paying for college while remaining near his family.
Training happened on weekends and during the summer.
Then came 9/11.
“After Sept. 11, everything changed. It was like the regular Army,” he says. Training became constant.
In 2006 and 2007, his unit deployed to Iraq, where it was situated on a former Iraqi airbase.
Though Dulovic had been trained as a vehicle mechanic, in Iraq he was a base security guard.
It wasn’t a cushy desk job. He had to help defend the base, which came under sniper fire. Improvised Explosive Devices, also known as IEDs, were a hazard on area roads.
“That was my second war,” Dulovic says.
As for transitioning back to civilian life, it wasn’t a problem.
“I can adapt anywhere,” he says. “It’s like that survival instinct.”
Though he didn’t have a problem with getting back to civilian life, he acknowledged that others do. He also says it’s important to think “out of the box” and stay positive.
“Use your energy to work on things you can change,” he says, “And never give up.”
After coming back to the U.S., he enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University to study computer information systems.
His involvement with computing had begun decades before, when he got his first computer—a Commodore 64—in 1987 at age 11.
Eventually he got a job working for the Department of Defense. In 2011, he moved to Bellevue for a job at Offutt as a software developer for the Air Force Weather Agency.
Three years later, he started a side business fixing residential computers.
“It was just more for fun, really,” he says.
He didn’t expect it to grow, but grow it did.
A year ago, he quit his software development job to concentrate on the business, called DME Computer Services, which provides information technology support for small- and medium-size companies in metro Omaha. DME is based in the home Dulovic shares with his wife of three years, Mirela, and their children, Emma and Oliver.
Dulovic is planning to spend another year as a one-person operation, then will consider adding staff.
“I don’t want to rush anything,” he says.
This article was printed in the October/November 2018 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
This online version has been changed from the print edition to reflect updated information.