Former Coal Miner Now Helps Fellow Veterans Through Vet Corps Program
In this story, we meet an AmeriCorps volunteer who helps veterans find housing, education and employment. AmeriCorps is an anti-poverty volunteer service program, like the Peace Corps, except members serve in the United States. They work on projects that range from tutoring children to helping restore flood damaged homes to helping people in need find healthy food.
Wayne McDonald is an Army veteran who served during the first Gulf War. Although he was never involved in combat in Iraq, he was involved in stressful situations along the Mexican border, where drug smugglers would often shoot at him.
After serving for three years, he returned to his home of southern West Virginia.
“I really wanted to come home. My mind wasn’t right. I knew I needed to come home,” said McDonald.
McDonald returned to West Virginia in 1992, but he wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD for about 10 years. He found work as a mining mechanic and a strip miner.
“When I came back, the coal market was basically how it was now, you couldn’t get a job, there was nothing available, and I had a wife and a little baby boy, and I had to figure something out,” said McDonald.
But he says his time in the Army left him emotionally unstable. He found help when two volunteers at the Henlawson Veterans Center, Rudy Varney and Andy Clark, recognized that he needed to see a doctor. But McDonald didn’t want to reach out for help.
“I had to get some papers filled out one day. And I came over here and things didn’t go my way and I kind of lost it. And they locked the doors and wouldn’t let me out. They called my wife and made her come and get me and take me to the emergency room at the VA hospital, and they was waiting for me. And that’s when they diagnosed me with anxiety disorder, and PTSD.”
The Vet Center in Henlawson, in Logan County, is a place where veterans help other veterans find resources, like doctors and psychologists. Volunteers also help veterans get to the VA hospital in Huntington.
Last year, Wayne McDonald started working as an AmeriCorps Vet Corps member here, helping other veterans.
“And at first I said no. I was afraid. I didn’t know how to work a computer, I didn’t know how to work a copier. I didn’t know none of this. They talked me into this.”
As an AmeriCorps member, McDonald earns a small living stipend, health insurance, and an education award after their year in service.
It’s nothing like the type of pay McDonald was earning in the mining industry. Still, he says he’s gained something far more important to him than a high salary. He’s discovered that he can do things he never imagined himself doing in the past.
Recently, McDonald has enrolled in college. He’s studying Social Work, so he can continue to help veterans after his AmeriCorps service.
Donna Decker is another veteran who serves in AmeriCorps here in Logan County.
“I think it is very hard to come home to a rural area. If you came home to Charleston, or if you even came home to somewhere that had a military base or a VA just down the road. When you come home to Logan, it’s rural, you don’t have that military community any more. Who do you turn to for help?” said Decker.
Decker and McDonald’s main project right now is helping connect with young veterans and letting them know how to find help. Their project is sponsored by the local Vietnam Veterans chapter and LifeBridge Vet Corps.
Most of the people who work and volunteer here at the Henlawson Vet Center are veterans themselves, like Andy Clark, a Vietnam veteran and one of the AmeriCorps’ mentors.
“We’ve got to help each other. This building this chapter this vet center saved my life. In 1990 I threw everything away and was on the streets for two years. They diagnosed me with PTSD. There’s help. If a veteran’s out there, we can help them,” said Clark.
The Henlawson Vet Center helps veterans in five counties in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.
For more information on the Henlawson Vet Center, call (304) 752-4453.