For some veterans, timing is everything.
"I've had people reach out to me and say, 'Listen, if I hadn't found your web site, I was going to commit suicide today.'"
Sam Cannan is hoping to help disabled veterans around the world gain new purpose, and provide a new method of focus. He wants to show them how to make and repair watches--a greater necessity than many people.
"The average watchmaker's age is around 70, and there's less than 3,000 in the United States today," he said. "They are left with no one to repair these watches."
While many people have given up on a watch in favor of an iPhone in the digital age, the luxury watch business is booming.
"When you buy a $25,000 watch, and the service center tells you it may be 16 weeks to 6 months until you get the watch back, (The customer is) not real happy about that," he said. "It really is a ticking time bomb for service, because every mechanical watch--like a car--has to be serviced."
The idea came from the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking that debuted during World War II. The school broke ground in 1944, with the first students entering after the war. Cannan reached out to Joy Bulova, the widow of the last living Bulova, to ask whether he could bring the dream back to life.
"She actually thought it was lost to history," said Cannan. "They thought that the days of watchmaking were over, essentially, but because they had been out of the loop for so many years, they had no clue that the pendulum has basically swung back the other way, and now, they need more watchmakers today than they did in 1944."
Cannan, a retired Baltimore police-officer-turned-watchmaker, talks about watches like they're his children.
"I consider watches as living things, breathing things--you look inside and the heart's beating."
He's took that passion and tried for four years to get a school up and running in various states, including Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and South Carolina.
"We were actually offered a prison in New York--I wouldn't accept it," he said, noting veterans deserve better.
Refusing to give up, he is now close to opening the nation's only technical school for veterans on four acres of land in Middletown, donated by Geri and Richard Money. He plans to train and house honorably discharged veterans in portable classrooms donated by a private school in Pennsylvania, through the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative.
"The school has a home now, so we put up a mailbox," he said with a smile.
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"We have so many applicants waiting--309 as of this morning--and this is with no advertising at all, they just find the website."
Requests to attend from as far away as Dubai have been received, Cannan said.
"I had one guy who said to me, 'I don't think I deserve to go to your school. My entire platoon was killed and I'm the only one that survived, and I think I should be with them.' Because we take no VA money whatsoever, we take the ones with the most need--the ones who are really desperate to find their way back."
The program is credited with saving three lives already, he said.
"Simply because there's hope where there was not."
The 10-week watch technician course includes four weeks of jewelry repair that will train veterans in how to service a quartz watch. Those skills include learning how to replace a dial, hands, stems, crowns, and crystals, then how to polish cases, reseal the watch, repair a ring, and size a bracelet clasp.
The full-blown watchmakers course will last 16 months.
Watchmaking and repair, Cannan said, is a perfect--and lucrative--career for a disabled vet.
"If this person is in a wheelchair for example, he's sitting or she's sitting--so they're working at a bench...they could be sitting on all day," he explained. "Now, suppose they're missing a limb and they're fitted with the little prongs, we could actually retrofit a small little prosthetic to that while they work on it with their other hand," he said. "They become so lost in the process, they're no longer thinking about what their issues are with whatever their maladies happen to be."
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The career can also be done from home, with minimal equipment and veterans still pulling in six figures. The average graduate watchmaker makes between $65,000 and $85,000 to start.
"Companies are more than happy to move you--pay for you apartment--whatever is required to get you there because they need watchmakers," he said.
There are 170 jobs waiting already, according to Cannan--with one company clamoring for the first 50 graduates from the VWI.
Cannan received donations of thousands of watches, currently sitting in storage. Freilich Jewelers in the Bronx, New York, went out of business and donated their entire store inventory to the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative. An international watchholding company donated $137,000 in watchmaking equipment, and George Washington University donated $85,000 in lab equipment. Cannan partnered with the Goodwill of Delaware and Delaware County, which donated 35 lbs. of watches for classroom use. Even the school-wide storage containers were donated.
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There are a few hurdles left before the school is up and running. Cannan still needs permits from Middletown, DelDOT, and DNREC. He's hoping VFW posts will sponsor transportation for veterans and that a local company will donate electrical and plumbing.
"I wanted it January 1, but that didn't happen, so I'm shooting for June now."
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Donations are a necessity because Canna is offering all the schooling and training for free. He said he just wants to make a difference.
"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for those folks...they have been forgotten--and I won't forget them. I have a skill set that I can give them--that very few people can give them--and I give it to them for free simply because they can then control their lives," he said.