About 10 years into his 12-year driving career, Karl Blissenbach of Jacksonville, North Carolina, suffered a health issue that basically put him in “park” with his former employer.
And, despite demonstrable improvement in his condition, the military veteran said, the company refused to put him back on the road.
“So, I said, ‘Fine,’ and I started looking for another job. I’m glad I did,” he said. “I really like this company.”
“This company” is Forward Air Corp., a carrier based in Greeneville, Tennessee.
Blissenbach says making the move gave him a new lease on his driving career.
During decade since joining Forward Air, he has covered much of the lower 48 states, to the tune of 300,000 to 500,000 miles a year, he reckons.
“A favorite? It’s hard to say,” he said of the ground he’s covered.
“Every state is beautiful. I mean, I love going through Montana. They got some beautiful creeks and streams. So does Washington, and Portland in Oregon,” he said. “Every place has got good stuff.”
What’s the secret to surviving in the trucking business?
Keep it simple.
“What makes a person a good driver is paying attention and doing your job,” said Blissenbach, now 62. “If you do a good job, they’ll give you more jobs.”
In addition to being a good driver, Blissenbach, who served in both the U.S. Marines (1978-1982) and the U.S. Army (1986-1989), has another thing going for him in his career: He works for a company that describes itself as “extremely veteran-focused.”
Forward has been nationally recognized for its driver programs, which are designed to get willing vets behind the wheel and out on the road. The company also supports causes that can make a tangible difference in the lives of wounded veterans. In addition, Forward has established its own charitable foundation, Operation Forward Freedom, funded through a portion of sales in the online company store, through which it provides monetary support to various nonprofits.
One such group, Hope For The Warriors, received a $10,000 donation in honor of Veterans Day this year. That money that will make life-changing improvements for veterans, helping them to restore their independence by providing adaptive driving equipment and rehabilitation for those who have lost the ability to drive.
“Forward is committed to America’s servicemen and women, who continue to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country,” said Tom Schmitt, the company’s chairman, president and CEO in a release announcing the donation.
“As an organization, we show our gratitude to those who served and are currently serving, by joining with other veteran supporting organizations, like Hope For The Warriors, to provide opportunities and programming for military families,” Schmitt continued. “It is our honor to give back to our nation’s veterans with this donation.”
Such gestures do not go unnoticed by employees, particularly those who have a military background.
Richard Rhine spent 16 years in the U.S. Navy and has been with Forward for two of his nine years as a professional truck driver.
“It’s definitely a vet-friendly environment here” he said of his employer. “I’m going to drive for as long as I can physically do it.”
Like Blissenbach, Rhine says he feels that Forward appreciates his life experience.
The 62-year-old said that, from dealing with pandemic conditions to inclement weather, the company has demonstrated it understands the skillsets that only come with having “been there, done that.”
“Dealing with all the other traffic is the biggest challenge in driving,” he said, adding that 2020 offered truckers a respite from that particular headache.
“We had a special treat during the pandemic when they made everybody (else) stay at home and we had the roads to go ahead and do our job. That was nice, and due to the crunch, the money has gotten much better.”
“Yeah, the pandemic made the job better. We got a lot more work,” he said. “People kept buying TVs because now, they had money. And I got to haul them. We also got some raises over the last year because the company’s trying to keep us.”
Blissenbach and Rhine — both veterans of the military as well as experienced drivers — also find time to impart their knowledge and experience to the company’s younger drivers. The result, they hope, is helping new drivers get off to a good start and make the most out of their driving careers.
“Most companies prefer team drivers, so I tell them to try to find you somebody that you can live with 24/7,” Rhine said.
“If you can find that person — which I have fortunately been able to do — you can have a good living out here. The money is available, if you’re willing to work,” he advised. “If you can hang on and get past a few hard road bumps you’re going to have with your co-driver, you’re going to do good.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.