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Operation start-up

Under the shadow of war, US soldiers in Iraq take 'live' online classes on running a business - with time out when they go into 'stealth mode.'

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The road to entrepreneurship is often long and bumpy, but how many Americans can say they drafted their business plans in a war zone? In between missions at a forward operating base in Iraq, 44 soldiers in the Massachusetts Army National Guard have been polishing their dreams, not just their rifles. Once a week, the group tunes in - via an Internet link and webcam - to small-business classes put together by Louis Celli, a retired Army master sergeant in Billerica, Mass.

Knowing what it's like to be on active duty, Mr. Celli says he's only too happy to accommodate interruptions. "We went through an entire class where every 10 minutes they were like, 'Hold on, we've got to go into stealth mode for a minute,' " he says. A sandstorm knocked out the satellite connection once.

It's the first time a live course like this has been offered to deployed soldiers, says John Madigan, a vice president of The Veterans Corporation. Congress established the nonprofit in 1999 to support the business ventures of returning soldiers. Veterans do not own businesses at a higher rate than the general population, Mr. Madigan says, but the 5 million they do own contribute about $202 billion annually to the US economy.

Celli first offered the class only to stateside vets, but he expanded it rather spontaneously when Sgt. 1st Class Rich Guzofski e-mailed him from Iraq eager to take the course. Celli agreed to try it by e-mail, but then Guzofski wrote back saying dozens of his fellow soldiers wanted in on it, too. "I kind of freaked out - I had to get creative real fast," Celli says.

In less than a week he heard back from Citrix Online, a California company that offered to donate GoToMeeting software. It allows Celli to e-mail a link that allows the soldiers to see whatever Celli's doing on his computer screen. Soon after, he launched the class from his home office. He also has voice and webcam connections, so he's practically there - except for some time delay for voices and images to travel to the other side of the world.

At 8 o'clock on a recent morning, Celli dials up two students for an extra class geared toward their business plans. On top, he's dressed in a jacket and tie, which show up in the webcam while his shorts and sneakers stay out of view.

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