Daniel Morales doesn't discount the stress of working on Wall Street, but it pales in comparison to his experiences in the U.S. Marine Corps.
"It's tough," said Morales, an eight-year veteran who rose to the rank of sergeant and was deployed to Iraq before his tour of active duty ended in 2014. "The competition is fierce, but at the end of the day, no matter how stressed I get, I say, 'Well, I'm not dodging bullets, though, so it could always be worse.'"
Finance isn't an industry Morales had seriously contemplated before the armed forces, or even while serving. Once out, though, he found it tough to attract the interest of employers outside of law enforcement and became intrigued when former military personnel employed on Wall Street told him about Drexel Hamilton, a broker-dealer owned by disabled veterans, where he now works in equity sales.
"In combat, you try to anticipate your enemy's next move, and we try to anticipate the next move of the market to help our clients," Morales said. "That adaptability that you need to survive out there helps you to survive here in the finance business."
Drexel Hamilton's goal is to give military veterans a meaningful career opportunity -- a "shot at the American dream," as President James Cahill says -- as they settle back into civilian life. It's an expansive labor pool, numbering 21.8 million veterans, according to 2014 Census Bureau table. And the skills they bring to employers can prove particularly valuable, according to an analysis of U.S. companies led by veterans.
Such corporations outperformed the S&P 500 significantly in the 12 months through early March, posting an average gain of 7%, compared with the S&P's decline of 1.2%, according to data collected by BoardEx, a subsidiary of TheStreet that analyzes corporate relationships. Executives and outside experts have attributed the edge to skills such as teamwork, communication and strategizing taught in the military.
"They've been in a structured environment and they know how to take orders and add value," said Cahill, who has extensive experience in finance, including 14 years at Salomon Brothers, eight years at Lehman Brothers and a stint at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. "They plan so that they don't fail."
Sometimes, Cahill said, the rigidity of the military's structure keeps veterans from pushing past their limits; he often reminds new hires that outside the Armed Forces, they're not bound by that hierarchical structure.
"The one thing that I have to get across when I get sergeants and corporals is that they don't know they can be a general," he said. "I want every veteran to know that even if you may not be a high-ranking officer, when you come to Wall Street, the opportunity is wide open."
While he didn't serve in the military himself, Cahill wanted to train veterans for finance jobs. Drexel Hamilton, with its slogan of "a vet with a vet," referring to the practice of pairing longtime Wall Street workers with former military personnel, lets him do just that.
About 38% of the firm's 100 employees are military veterans, and 24% are disabled veterans, he said during a panel discussion before the Memorial Day weekend with state Sen. Thomas Croci, a Naval intelligence officer who attained the rank of commander during eight years of active duty.
Originally known as Decoration Day, the Memorial Day holiday traces its roots to the aftermath of the Civil War, when survivors marked it by placing flowers on the graves of soldiers killed in battle.
In 1950, Congress passed a resolution asking the president to issue a proclamation urging U.S. residents to observe each Memorial Day with prayers for peace, a tradition President Obama continued this year.
"We pledge to never stop working to fulfill our obligations to all members of our Armed Forces so they know we stand beside them every step of the way -- not just when we need them, but also when they need us," Obama wrote in a proclamation issued Thursday.
The military helps veterans to succeed in civilian jobs because of the responsibility it confers on them at a young age, Croci said. Values like integrity, ethics and teamwork are ingrained, which is why veteran-led businesses are successful, he said.
"There's an ethos there that you're not going to learn at any school," Croci added. "It's the United States Armed Forces and essentially combat operations that teaches you that foundation."
Such integrity is a particular asset in an industry scarred by incidents like the 2001 collapse of Enron, whose assets of $65.5 billion made it one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history.
The savings of many Enron employees were wiped out, while high-ranking executives were imprisoned after regulatory probes found that the company had hidden debt and write-offs, creating the appearance of stable growth and a healthy cash flow that vastly inflated its stock price.
The government's efforts to rein in "false profits" afterward proved less effective than advertised, as demonstrated by the 2008 arrest of putative financial guru Bernie Madoff in a $65 billion Ponzi scheme.
"You have a bunch of men and women in this room, officers and enlisted who have integrity," Croci said during Thursday's panel discussion. "Their name, their family name and their reputation is more important to them than the dollar. So if you can have a group of men and women like this in this field, I think you're going to see the kind of change that people want to see in the financial sector."
And no matter what the task, passing a piece of legislation or taking an military objective overseas in combat, Croci said that veterans are mission-focused and goal-oriented.
Drexel Hamilton now has a net capitalization of $5 million, according to Cahill, yet he wants to do more and he says politicians and other corporations have a responsibility to provide veterans opportunities as well.
"I know firsthand that the best thing you can do for veterans is give them a meaningful career," Morales said.