When he left the Army, Robert Tolan enlisted as an Army Reserve soldier because he wasn’t ready to fully leave military life behind him.
Six months out, he was still unemployed and his lack of formal education and new duties with the Reserve made finding a job even more difficult, because he could be called away for training or service at any moment.
“I was either ignored or rejected,” Tolan, a native of Arroyo Grande, said. “One company in Santa Maria told me they don’t hire veterans because we are trained to kill, and we are untrainable. ... I got to a point where I was helping several veterans get jobs, but I wasn’t getting one.”
Then along came the Nichols family: Husband-and-wife team Logan and Jessica Nichols own Peacock Farms in Arroyo Grande, event venue The Gardens at Peacock Farms and their winery offshoot, Peacock Cellars.
Their children had participated in a program that sent care packages to soldiers oversees, including Tolan. So when word got around through some shared 4-H friends that Tolan was having trouble finding work, the Nicholses gave him a call.
They hired him a few days later despite the fact he had no prior winery experience, and self-admittedly “knew absolutely nothing about wine.”
“I always tell people, ‘The more I learn about the wine industry, the more I realize I don’t know about the wine industry.’” Tolan said, with a laugh. “There is so much to it, and they taught me everything.”
It was that faith in him that inspired Tolan to give back to the Nicholses last week and present them with a surprise award from the Department of Defense on Sept. 8.
“It feels weird — I’m never nervous, but I was actually nervous about that day,” said Tolan, who is now the assistant winemaker at Peacock Cellars.
The Patriot Award
The Patriot Award goes to individual supervisors and bosses for support provided directly to a service member and his or her family. The award winners are nominated by the service member and can take up to a year to be finalized.
Teresa James, program support specialist with Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (a Department of Defense program), said her department give out more than 1,000 of the awards to employers from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, all to those who “go above and beyond to help” local Reserve and Guard members.
James noted the award is meant to recognize employers for supporting servicemen and women rather than putting up roadblocks to their success.
“You honestly have some of these employees who go on deployment, and they get fired for it,” she said. “And that’s against the law. We hope all employers out there will know about us — we really try to work with them to help.”
Jessica Nichols said receiving the award was an overwhelming experience.
“I’m like, ‘Wait, we don’t deserve this,’” she said. “Like, ‘We didn’t do enough. Are you sure? Did you get the right name on the plaque?’ Because there is always more that you can be doing. There’s always more.”
Supporting a soldier
The road hasn’t always been easy.
Because of Tolan’s position with the Reserve, he was often called out to do trainings for days or even weeks at a time, with little to no notice.
This often left the Nicholses, who run their three businesses with fewer than 15 employees, shorthanded.
The Nicholses said they hired Tolan as a cellar assistant (AKA a “cellar rat”) in 2014 because they needed help building up their new winery.
At that time, it wouldn’t matter if Tolan was called away because the operation was still so small, Logan Nichols said.
Over time, Tolan’s duties grew and he began to play a bigger part at the winery.
Now, the timing is working out perfectly — Tolan just decided to retire from active duty with the Reserves, and at the same time, the Nicholses’ business has reached a point where they need a full-time assistant winemaker, according to Logan Nichols.
“This has all worked out wonderfully to where we brought him in at a low-level position, we’ve trained him throughout the years and we’ve relied on him more throughout the years,” Logan Nichols said. “Now he gets to be in charge of the cellar rats when they come in.”
His retirement will also leave more time for Tolan’s nonprofit organization, Welcome Home Military Heroes.
The volunteer organization welcomes returning servicemen and women at San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara county airports. The group also funds honor flights to Washington, D.C., and attends funeral services for deceased veterans.
In the past three years, the organization has raised more than $15,000, Tolan said.
In that time, he’s gone from paying for the flags for funerals out of his own pocket to organizing a fundraiser at the Nicholses’ Peacock Gardens event venue that they’ll sell tickets to this year because attendance was so high last year.
“When we first came up with that idea, Robert was paying for everything,” Logan Nichols said of the decision to start hosting the event at their property. “They were putting gas in their own vehicles to go to these things, and we could hear it in his voice — it was taxing. It was breaking him down financially, so we decided to do that fundraiser.”
The fundraiser this year will once again be held at The Gardens at Peacock Farms, 2018 Los Berros Road, on Nov. 4. (For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit www.welcomehomemilitaryheroes.org.)
Jessica Nichols said she and Logan never questioned their decision to hire Tolan and to support his work with Welcome Home Military Heroes.
“For us, we are a very patriotic people, so it was an easy thing — it wasn’t a burden whatsover to open our hearts and our home and our place up to that,” she said. “We’re honored and grateful obviously that Robert respects us, but more than anything this is about them (the veterans), not just us. This is a plaque of what other people are doing, and that we can be a part of it, that’s an honor.”
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