Stephen Small enlisted in the Navy in 1977, serving as a Logistics Officer before entering the Navy Reserves in 1986. He expected to get the paperwork for his discharge finalized in October 2001, but 9/11 interrupted everything. Small was suddenly back on active duty and on a submarine in the Middle East – the fifth time he had been deployed to a combat zone.
After completing his military service in 2004, Small found himself in another battle, this time with his own personal demons. But he survived that, too, coming out the other side with a fresh perspective and a new lease on life. In May, he started his own trucking company, Small Transportation, in his hometown of Philadelphia, and he’s aggressively reinvested earnings back into the business, buying a second truck and investing in three reefer trailers.
Small is married with five children – including 11-year-old Isaiah and 13-year-old Stepheni – and has seven granddaughters, a great grandson, and a great granddaughter.
Stephen Small, with wife Nina and son Isaiah
GETLOADED: How did you come about enlisting in the military?
SMALL: I was just trying to get out of trouble. I was in a bad neighborhood. West Philadelphia, born and raised. In the playground is where I spent most of my days. (laughs)
GL: Where were you stationed?
SMALL: I got stationed in the North Sea, which is basically a submarine out of Norfolk. I was in Afghanistan. I was in Desert Storm. I was in Grenada. I was in the Falklands War. I was in five different combat zones.
GL: Sounds like you were probably in some pretty hairy situations at points.
SMALL: There was, at times. Being on the submarine, there are always hairy situations because you never know what’s going on unless you’re a bridge officer, and I wasn’t. Mostly on a submarine, it’s rumor central. In general quarters, you usually don’t find out about anything until it’s all over. I was basically in charge of everything coming on the boat and everything going off. That can be everything from toilet paper and toothpaste to nuclear weapons.
GL: Which is a pretty good parallel to what you’re doing now, right?
SMALL: Yeah, I guess you could say that. It was more of just a fly-in than it is now. The trucking company is more about the transportation, but it was similar.
GL: But logistics in general has got to be a big component about what you do, right?
GL: So how long were you in the Navy?
SMALL: From 1977 to 1986, it was active duty. From 1986 to 2001, it was reserves. I was actually discharged in May of 2001. I was due to receive my papers in October of 2001, but of course the idiots ran into the World Trade Center, so they didn’t issue anybody any discharges because it was a national emergency. Nobody was given any discharges, especially people with time in because they needed us for supervisors, so I ended up back on active duty for three and a half years.
GL: So you had the paperwork rolling for discharge, that ends up happening, and you’re deployed to Afghanistan?
Left to right: daughter Stepheni, son Isaiah, and
Stephen, with friends Evan, Don, and Cindy.
SMALL: No, I actually ended up going to Saudi Arabia. We were there, but we weren’t there. We were actually deployed to patrol Iraq, but what happened was we ended up getting into situations with pirates – we ended up having to be more concerned with pirates than with what was going on in Iraq.
GL: That’s around the time when I started seeing pirates start to become a big thing in the news. I didn’t know much about that beforehand.
SMALL: The pirates were bad. They were robbing private citizens, and then they started hijacking oil tankers and selling them to Third World countries. Basically, pirates were out there robbing people and selling the stuff to other countries. It was like organized crime almost, and we got into some serious confrontations with them because pirates would fight you to death’s end.
GL: Did you have to chaperone the goods coming into there?
SMALL: Yeah, the Navy did that in general. Not too often did submarines get involved with that. That was usually destroyers and battleships.
GL: What was it that led you to the Navy specifically out of all the branches? Was it just the opportunity?
SMALL: My academics did, I guess. You had to have a certain academic level in order to be accepted into the Navy. I didn’t really think about the Navy specifically, but after taking several tests, it was suggested to me to try the Navy.
GL: When your service ended, how did you eventually move into the trucking industry?
SMALL: Well, here’s another story. When I got out in 2005, I got addicted to drugs. Not to make a whole bunch of excuses, but I got addicted to drugs, mostly cocaine. I got addicted and I ended up getting arrested. After the Navy, I was depressed and started using drugs, and I would go out and write bad checks to buy merchandise to sell to buy drugs, knowing I didn’t have the money in there to cover it. Eventually I turned myself in, told them I wanted to clean myself up and plead guilty to all the charges. The judge and the courts had sympathy on me and they sent me to a rehab facility at a VA hospital, and I got my life together. But because you’ve got a record now, no matter what you did in the military, nobody would hire you. Trucking gave me a better opportunity to support my family, but there were a lot of trucking jobs I couldn’t get, so finally I said, "You know what, I’m tired of this." I asked God for assistance and I opened up my own trucking company.
GL: How many trucks do you have?
GL: What equipment are you running?
SMALL: Two tractors and three trailers.
SMALL: I have a 2011 and 2010 International, and I have 53-foot reefer trailers.
GL: Do you have regular runs that you make or particular shippers that you pull for?
SMALL: There are a couple brokers and 3PLs and a couple cold-storage companies, and whatever I can find in between. I’ll do anything as long as it generates revenue.
GL: Do you have regular destinations that you’re going to?
SMALL: The northeast. The reason being is when you’re running in the northeast, it’s higher pay lanes for the least amount of miles. You get paid more per mile.
GL: Trying to tie it all back together, do you think there are skills that you learned through training with the navy that help you in this industry?
SMALL: The biggest thing I learned is how to deal with people, and I learned how to manage men. At one point in the Navy I had 64 men under my direct supervision. I’m constantly in and out of the warehouses, constantly interacting with customers and vendors, and that’s where that has really helped, not necessarily the people who work for you or work with you. The Navy enhanced my ability to effectively communicate with people and basically get along. Even the time that I spent incarcerated, a little over a year, I had a chance to reflect on what my gifts were, what my talents were, and to plan out how I plan to put those gifts into practice. It gave me a chance to get myself together both psychologically and physically, where drugs had just torn me down in the 18 month span that I used drugs. I’m truly grateful and I’m a spiritual person.
GL: Do have any other drivers?
SMALL: I have another driver who drives the other truck, he’s an employee. He’s a good guy, military too. He was in the Army, and that’s my plan, to always hire someone who was in the military or has been incarcerated. People say, “Well, why is that?” If I find somebody who has the sincere desire and has proven that they want to turn their life around, I’m going to give them the opportunity because people did not give me an opportunity. God gave me the opportunity, and I want to be able to bless somebody else.
P.O. BOX 887
COATESVILLE, PA 19320
As part of our Loaded With Pride campaign, Getloaded will donate $250 in Stephen Small’s name to Operation Homefront, a national nonprofit that provides emergency financial and other assistance to military families and wounded warriors. If you’re a Getloaded member who’s also a military veteran, contact us here. We’d love to share your story and donate another $250 in your name. Visit here to find out more about Loaded With Pride and read more stories about military veterans in the trucking industry.
About Operation Homefront: Operation Homefront provides emergency financial and other assistance to the families of our service members and wounded warriors. A national nonprofit, Operation Homefront leads more than 2,500 volunteers across a network of field offices, and has met more than 750,000 needs since 2002. Ninety-three percent of all donations to Operation Homefront goes to its programs. For more information about Operation Homefront, please visit www.operationhomefront.net.