Jim Kasson, recently a top executive in the Drug Enforcement Administration, was talking with a reporter Saturday in Altoona after the public launch of the United States Veterans Educational Institute - Kasson's new employer.
The reporter told of his wonderment on hearing USVEI founder and chairman Dennis Butts explain how he had created the organization's maze of components, with a variety of goals and aspirations, approximately within the gestation period of a human baby, after coming to Altoona with no plans to do anything of the sort.
"Mind-boggling," said Kasson, listed in a 2011 organizational chart as the DEA's chief inspector, now USVEI's chief intelligence officer.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
Dennis M. Butts, Chairman of USVEI, explains the programs USVEI will offer at a press conference attended by nearly 100 people Saturday at the Ramada Altoona Conference Center.
On Saturday, Butts signed a memorandum of understanding with Clarion University President Karen Whitney, cementing a partnership for the centerpiece of the whole setup, a veterans-only school at the former Bon Secours hospital property on Seventh Avenue, eliciting a fist pump from Whitney, who had shouted "Yay" when Butts predicted the project would double her school's current enrollment of 6,500.
But around that centerpiece are eight vets-oriented subsidiaries, including a deployment force and technology laboratory, plus other organizations on the way, like a foundation to aid families of fallen service members, a proposed construction corps for homeless female veterans, a maintenance company and a group to provide insurance and other services to Native American reservations.
"We'll probably end up with 50 companies by the time we're finished," Butts said. "We save lives and build things."
The key to it has been the community's willingness, according to Butts, who said he is motivated by his experiences as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was wounded three times.
"Something magic happened when we walked in," Butts said, talking about the meeting that led to an agreement within a week to buy the hospital property.
"In Altoona, they handed us a silver tray and said, 'take what you want,'" he said. "Everywhere we went."
When he met with Ralph Albarano, also a Marine and the contractor who will renovate the hospital buildings, he mentioned their common service experience and asked, "Are you in?"
"I'm in," Albarano replied.
"It was that simple," Butts said.
He's never been in a community where things came together so well "without the normal hassle," he said.
Deployment force planned
As chief intelligence officer, Kasson will prepare the way for the deployment forces when they go to dangerous places in the world like Mexico or Colombia as "embedded" operatives to protect and potentially rescue corporate executives for their Fortune 500 employers, Kasson said.
He'll be calling ahead to alert local law enforcement of the deployment forces' role.
Those executives can be "high-profile" targets for kidnappers, he said.
"If, God forbid, something goes wrong, [local law enforcement] will be the cavalry," to come and help the USVEI forces, he said.
Working at the DEA, he developed many key domestic and foreign contacts that will enable the organization to "navigate" where needed, he said.
The deployment forces will be at the disposal of another arm of the organization, a search and rescue group that will have access to tracking dogs, according to Butts.
The deployment forces will have access to satellite tracking, drones and heat-sensing equipment, say for finding a child lost in the wilderness, Butts said.
"It's all about saving lives," Butts said.
It's not about the "normal things" one would think when one thinks about special operatives, he said.
"It's the opposite," he stated.
Tech lab to seek
The tech labs will seek to solve technological problems brought by customers and will work for those customers under contract, according to USVEI's Chief Information Officer Earl Bentley.
Sometimes, the lab will solve problems identified by lab employees or create innovations proposed by them - "research and development," said Chief Technology Officer Kevin Williams.
The lab will work in partnership with universities, Butts said.
It will seek "process patents" that will generate royalties for the lab and -- depending on various legalities -- for the partner universities and corporations, according to Butts.
Williams, who will continue to work for the TekConnX company, which will run the lab under contract with USVEI, recalled the development of a solution to the problem of a vision-impaired library patron in North Carolina, who had to rely on an employee to use the card catalog to find an item. The solution was a voice-responsive computer that dispatched a robot to seek the item requested, he said.
The field of telemedicine is ripe for development of innovations, Williams and Bentley said.
It's especially valuable for doctors seeking to serve rural customers with mobility problems, enabling the doctors to see patients electronically, obtain critical data like blood pressure readings and respiratory information from blowing into special devices connected to computers or cellphones.
Corps to renovate homes
The construction corps will renovate houses that will become homes for participating women, according to Butts. USVEI will seed chapters of the corps around the country, piggybacking on a proposed music tour by local country singer Ricky Lee - who performed at the news conference.
At each stop, the corps will recruit homeless female vets, seek donations of foreclosed homes from banks, renovate those homes and place participants in them. Thus, it will create housing and jobs for a needy population, according to Butts.
USVEI will donate two houses obtained in the Bon Secours transaction for occupation by corps members.
A building in Johnstown donated by Dino Persio, USVEI's attorney and Altoona Ramada president, is also set to be a home for homeless female vets.
Families to be aided
A planned foundation by USVEI would receive 15 percent of pre-tax profits from the operations of the USVEI businesses, according to Altoona native Athena D'Uva.
It would pay the bills of families of service members killed in action throughout the nation, create an educational fund for their children and cover those children's medical insurance.
The foundation would also bestow medals on seriously ill children who are frequent visitors to children's hospitals.
And it would create a CEO "roundtable" to devise ways to make veterans' businesses more successful, providing them contacts and helping them obtain contracts.
"We try to look in every area we can to create opportunities," Butts said.
Meeting spurred ideas
The overall vision grew out of Butts' meeting with D'Uva at a local restaurant, after he had come here to lecture and relax, at the behest of a friend.
They wanted to help vets and decided to work together.
D'Uva is now the chief administrative officer of USVEI.
The original idea was to create trade schools, but Butts dropped that because the federal funding program supporting those for veterans ended at the end of last year.
The organization is for-profit.
"I will never do a nonprofit," Butts said. "too many people begging for money."
State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, attended the news conference.
"It's a great thing for the community," Eichelberger said of the USVEI proposals. "[It will provide] a national presence in many respects."
"You can never do what you need to do, until you're in a place to do it," Butts said. "Altoona appears to be the place."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.