Serving Country, Serving Customers

Steven Coia left Rhode Island for Iraq, serving in the U.S. Marines, then returned home to work for his family’s pumping business.
Serving Country, Serving Customers
Coia pumps a septic tank near his home base in Cumberland, R.I.

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Three combat tours in Iraq taught Steven Coia that life is too unpredictable for any man's plans, no matter how carefully he builds them.

Therefore, when he returned home to Rhode Island in July 2008 after four years of active duty in the Marine Corps, the 26-year-old veteran never assumed the plans he brought with him would fall into place in the civilian world. That's especially true because he still owed the Corps four years on inactive reserves, and could be called back to active duty at any time.

In fact, his plans were still evolving as he worked alongside his father, Robert "Bobby'' Coia, at Coia Sanitation Service LLC in Cumberland, R.I., the next three years. Although he still wanted to own and operate the family's business someday, his time as a Marine helped him realize he also desired a career in law enforcement.

That addition to his plans seemed set when the nearby city of Central Falls, R.I., chose him for its police academy in August 2011. Coia spent $2,200 for the gear required, but never used it. Three days before the academy was to start, Central Falls became the first city in the state's 222-year history to go bankrupt. Class was canceled, leaving Coia and the other police recruits to sell their gear and go back to what they'd been doing.

What was Coia's response? "It could have been much worse," he says. "A lot of the guys who were already on the police force lost their pensions or a big chunk of their pensions. I still had other options. It ended up being a blessing in disguise for me."

More on that later.

Ready to roll

Coia credits the Marines for shaping much of his flexible, self-motivated, hardworking approach to life, but it began by working with his father in the family's pumping business.

In 1978, the elder Coia launched Coia Sanitation Service. More than 33 years later, the business is still pumping septic tanks in northern Rhode Island and nearby Attleboro and North Attleboro in Massachusetts. Customer education is a priority, and the Coias stress preventive maintenance programs to eliminate damage and costly system repairs.

Coia Sanitation operates two vacuum trucks, nearly identical 2005 and 2012 Peterbilt Model 335s. They carry 2,000-gallon steel tanks from Andert, Inc. and Masport pumps.

Steven Coia's history with the business began in 1994 at age 12 when he started riding in the company's service vehicles, pulling hose and opening covers at his father's direction. The younger Coia worked full time with his dad after graduating high school, and juggled work with classes at the community college. About four years later, when deciding he needed a break from school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, the military branch that had always interested him.

Combat looming

Coia knew that decision in 2004 almost certainly would involve combat in Iraq. But much like most Marines, he felt drawn to the Corps. "My mom and dad had a hard time with my decision, much more than I did," he says. "Everyone I served with knew what we were getting into. We weren't drafted. We all volunteered. I doubt there's a Marine anywhere who didn't know about the risks beforehand."

After three months of basic training in the Marines' fabled boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina, Coia spent about 10 weeks in infantry training at Camp Geiger near Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He went on to serve three seven-month combat tours: the first to reclaim Fallujah, the second to stabilize Ramadi, and the third to conduct operations from Kuwait to Baghdad.

"There's nothing too good to say about my seven months in Fallujah," Coia says. "It was a tough experience and I lost a lot of friends. They had told everyone in Fallujah to clear out before we went in, so we fought every Iraqi we met. We didn't talk to any of them. We were there to retake the city. The time went by in the blink of an eye. The people back home were great, too. A lot of school kids wrote us letters, and we got packages all the time from communities around the country."

On the front lines

After leaving Fallujah and returning to Camp Lejeune for seven months of specialized training, Coia and his fellow Marines flew back to Iraq, this time to Ramadi. "There was more fighting for about the first six weeks, and we'd do security patrols from there," he says. "Then we started working with more of the Iraqi people. During our time there, we worked with and helped train Iraqi security forces. It wasn't all good things, but the Marines I served with were great. We had a lot of camaraderie."

When those seven months ended, Coia's unit spent several more months back in the States. They then returned to the region aboard one of the Navy's amphibious assault ships, the USS Ponce. After going ashore in Kuwait, they spent seven months conducting convoy operations between there and Baghdad.

Coia's enlistment ended soon after that deployment, and he decided not to re-enlist. "Three deployments were enough," he says. "My unit has been to Afghanistan twice since I got out in July 2008, so they've been through a lot. I think it was the right decision for me. If I had stayed in and gone to Afghanistan, I probably wouldn't have come back."

A civilian again

Since returning home, Coia realizes his time in the Marines taught him many things and instilled a focused lifestyle. "I thought I was self-motivated before, but compared to what the Marines demanded, I'd been lazy," he says. "It's so important to be disciplined, to do your job now and not put it off. I kept that attitude when I returned to school. Before the Marines, I was on academic hold with D's and C's. Now that I'm back in school, it's straight A's."

Speaking of which, remember that "blessing in disguise"? Although Coia was disappointed that his first job as a policeman fell through, it sparked a desire to finish his associate degree at the community college, and then use the GI Bill to pursue bachelor's and master's degrees at Rhode Island College. Meanwhile, he works full time with his father during the day and attends classes at night.

His long-term goal is to become a police officer while simultaneously owning and operating Coia Sanitation Service. "I don't know what I'd do without my father," he says. "It's enjoyable work and I get to see him every day. I want to take over the company after Dad retires.

"I like working with people face to face," he continues. "I never thought about becoming a policeman until after I got out. I like working in the community. I can't stand sitting behind a desk. I know how bad things can get for people. I want the next generation to grow up in a good place to live."


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