WATERLOO, Iowa --- For Vietnam veteran Martin Culpepper, the opportunity for meaningful employment, and self-employment, for people of all walks of life is worth fighting for.
For Culpepper, who has served as head of the Cedar Valley Minority Contractors Association, his career was born out of the loss of a comrade in Vietnam.
Culpepper, of Waterloo, served in the Army with Michael Mullen of La Porte City, killed in his sleep by "friendly fire" from U.S. artillery in 1970. In fact, he helped dig the foxhole where Mullen died. And it was Culpepper who told the truth about Mullen's death to his parents, Gene and Peg Mullen of La Porte City.
The Mullens were so grateful they became like a second set of parents for Culpepper and paid his way through electrical contractor school.
Culpepper never forgot that, and made it his task to make a way for others in the profession, just as the Mullens had done for him.
"With me, it all started with Peg and Gene Mullen," Culpepper said. "Then it was (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) Local 288, and I talked to Don Frost, the business agent, and from there I went and applied for an apprenticeship program. Then I have to thank Don Frank of Paulson Electric for getting me into an apprenticeship program."
When he went into business for himself, Nelson Electric of Cedar Rapids showed him the ins and outs of running a business and how to estimate and bid on projects.
"It takes a lot to learn, but it helps when you've got some extremely good help," he said.
He has advocated long for businesses and state and local governments to follow the rules to ensure that a locally thinning number of minority subcontractors receive their share of the work on government-funded projects.
"We're not a large percentage so we don't get much attention. That's why I like federal jobs," where those objectives are followed more strictly.
But, he said, those starting out on their own still have to do the work and prove themselves.
"It's extremely hard to get into an electrical program," Culpepper said. "You have four or five openings, and 40 to 50 people apply, and at least 80 percent of them are qualified. You have to sell yourself when you're competing with that many people."
The attitude and determination to succeed is born out of life experience and, for Culpepper, that experience was his military background.
"I was a military veteran. Being a Vietnam veteran, you've got a little different attitude," he said. "You know what you have to do. You know what's expected of you. And you come to win. You don't want to be slightly better. You want to be better than the average guy.
"If you get help, get an opportunity, you take advantage of it, and make sure you do everything in your power to take advantage of it," he said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services