Billy Watkins, Clarion Ledge
Alvin Buckley chose to become homeless.
He chose to after realizing what nine months at war in Iraq had done to him.
He chose to after realizing “I could not be around my child the way I was,” he says. “My decision.”
So for months in 2008, he lived in the woods at Lefleur’s Bluff State Park in Jackson.
One night Buckley phoned the mother of his child. They talked for a few minutes. His hands trembled, but he kept his words smooth and steady.
Then he heard the jibber jabber in the background of his infant daughter. To him, it was the clearest voice he had heard in a long time.
He talked a couple of minutes longer, hung up the phone and put away the 9mm pistol that he had loaded with the intention of ending his pain.
He has found his calling
The gentleman at the conference table rises to shake hands. He is soft spoken and well dressed: Dark suit, white shirt, dark tie.
He is the employment specialist with the Jackson-based office of Soldier On, a nonprofit in five states that helps veterans who are homeless, unemployed, incarcerated or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In his job, he has met dozens of Alvin Buckleys.
“When I step back and look at what we’re doing with Soldier On … the fact is, we care deeply about veterans’ well being,” the man says. “They sacrificed. Many put their lives on the line. When they come back from war, some of them tend to shut down. Their mental well-being is the biggest thing. It’s hard for them to say, ‘Hey, I need help with this.’
“That’s where we come in. And that’s what I love about my job every single day.”
Alvin Buckley, 33, smiles as he speaks those words. He has found his calling — and himself.
Don’t leave anyone behind
Soldier On, founded in 1994 and funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is focused on “changing the end of the story,” says Hayes Dent, the organization’s senior vice president and a Yazoo City resident.
Dent is a veteran of the first Gulf War and recipient of the Bronze Star, awarded for heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.
“How many times have we heard the story about the veteran who couldn’t adjust after making it back home?” Dent says. “We want to help them adjust and get their lives back. For me personally, it’s about not leaving anybody behind.
“The thing about the veteran community is that many of us are living good lives … lives that most people would consider ‘normal.’ My dad is a Vietnam vet, and he later had a great career as a banker. He’s still active in community affairs. But when you’re in the military and deployed, you don’t sit around talking about who’s going home to a good life and who’s going to struggle.”
The statistics are sobering.
Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. Sixty-five percent of those are age 50 and older. More than half of the 22 are usually not under the care of VA health professionals.
Approximately 220,000 veterans reside in Mississippi. Soldier On is in the process of building 60 permanent housing units in Jackson for homeless veterans. Another facility is in the works on the Gulf Coast.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections has created a separate unit at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County where veterans who are nearing release from any state-supervised facility are offered life skills training by Soldier On staff members to help them transition back into society.
Carlos McGee, 47, is one of that program’s success stories. He served 10 years for drug convictions in Forrest County. He now works at Ingall’s Shipbuilding in Pascagoula as a joiner.
“My life is awesome,” he says. “I have a car and a truck. I’ve moved from an apartment to a house. I like my job. I have a girlfriend. I have a little bulldog named Lady.
“And I’ll admit to you right now that until Soldier On came along I had no plan for when I got out, had no idea how I was going to make a living.”
McGee grew up near Hattiesburg, graduated from North Forrest High School in 1987 and joined the Marines a year later. He served in Japan, Korea and Okinawa as a nuclear biological chemical defense specialist.
“I liked the job because not everyone could do it,” he says.
He stayed in four years and eventually returned to Mississippi in the mid-1990s. “I worked a few jobs, had a couple of kids along the way, went to school at (the University of Southern Mississippi) but didn’t graduate. Then I got into trouble and spent nine-and-a-half years basically in a cage.
“It was like I was sealed up in a vacuum. My emotional development, my social skills all deteriorated. I thought I was fine. But being behind those bars takes something out of you that a lot of times you aren’t able to get back.”
When he was introduced to the Soldier On program a few months before his release “I wanted no part of it, “he says.
“I was so into my own shell, I just wanted to be left alone,” he says. “And I sure didn’t want the rigid structure of attending classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. I told them that. I told them, “I’d rather be sleeping.’ ”
But the more he went to class, the more he saw the benefits.
“I could tell the people teaching these classes really cared. They were putting their hearts and souls into helping us,” McGee says. “It finally got to the point where I not only wanted to succeed for me, I wanted to do it for them, too.”
He learned basic things like how to balance a checkbook, maintain a budget, pay your bills on time. He studied more complex issues such as anger management and conflict resolutions.
“Once I got out, they helped me with living arrangements, clothing, transportation.
“If that program hadn’t come along … my life would’ve been ugly,” McGee says. “I was headed for destruction because I had no dreams or aspirations. I thank God for the people from Soldier On.
So, too, does Alvin Buckley.
He was raised in a strict household, the youngest of five children and the only boy.
“My dad and me, we were outnumbered on everything,” he says with a laugh.
Buckley graduated from Lawrence County High School in 2002. He studied architectural drafting and carpentry at Hinds Community College and Jackson State.
He joined the Marines in 2004.
“It had been on my mind since 9/11,” he says.
Buckley recalls the day he left for boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina.
“When I first got to the (Jackson) airport, they were explaining that we were going to fly to Charlotte and that we would be given money to eat at a restaurant there,” he says. “That sounded good. But when we got to the airport, these drill instructors showed up and, man, they went to yelling and yelling and yelling.”
Each recruit was given one phone call home.
“We were supposed to say only what was written on the wall in front of us,” Buckley says. “You know, ‘I made it here fine. Everything is OK.’
“But I decided to call my cousin’s house, instead. He was about to join, too. When his parents answered, I yelled out, ‘Tell Kentrell not to do it! Don’t join!’ The instructors ran over and hung up the phone and went to yelling again. They weren’t real happy with me. And Kentrell joined anyway. We even wound up in the same platoon.”
Miracle he was alive
Buckley trained in infantry and artillery. He was sent to Iraq in 2006.
“When we touched down there, everybody was anxious,” he recalls. “We were in this truck on the way to our base and gunshots started hitting the truck. They told us to get down and stay down, that we had Marines out there to take care of it.”
Buckley performed reconnaissance for a security convoy. A few weeks into his deployment, a vehicle in their nighttime convoy ran over a crudely made bomb. When Buckley’s sergeant got out of the vehicle, Buckley scrambled to cover him.
“All of a sudden the lights went out and I’m looking for movement through my night goggles,” he says. “I saw a guy running at full speed, but I couldn’t tell what he was running to. I watched him and saw a flash. That’s when everything went blank.”
When Buckley came to, he says his body “felt like it was on fire … and I’m still not sure from what.”
The medics kept telling him it was a miracle he was alive, that he “should have been eaten up by shrapnel.”
That was Buckley’s closest brush with death. He returned to the U.S. in February 2007 and immediately joined a reserve unit that was training to go to Iraq.
“I couldn’t wait to go back,” he says.
‘I don’t remember any of this’
A few weeks after coming home, he was riding with his daughter and her mother. He spotted a plastic grocery sack in the road and he pulled the car over. He got out and tried to stop traffic from both directions.
“In Iraq, if you saw a plastic garbage bag — or anything in the road — you could almost bet there was a bomb in it,” Buckley says. “And that was the only way I knew how to react — stop traffic, take care of the bomb.”
The police came, calmed Buckley down and eventually let him head home.
A fellow Marine he met at a job fair convinced Buckley to seek counseling at the VA hospital.
“We’re sitting there and all of a sudden my daughter’s mother starts telling the counselor all this stuff I’ve been doing. She said I would wake up in the middle of the night and maybe grab her. She said one night I woke up, got out of bed, went outside for 45 minutes, then came back to bed. I was making sure our home was secure.
“One night she found me under the bed. And I don’t remember any of this stuff she’s telling him. I thought she was picking on me.”
That’s when Buckley headed to the woods of LeFleur’s Bluff. He drank a lot. The alcohol helped numb his constant migraines. He showered at a gym where he was a member.
“If you saw me, you’d never think anything was wrong,” Buckley says. “But I didn’t understand PTSD.”
He enrolled in cosmetology school.
“Not because I wanted to learn how to cut hair,” he says. “But remember, I grew up in a household with five females. I was drawn to that. I felt safe.”
He became a licensed cosmetologist, massage therapist and barber. “In 2010, I took all three of those before my military review board, all in an effort to try and persuade them that I was OK, hoping they would let me go back to Iraq,” he says.
The board denied his request. He left the reserve unit in 2011, still battling PTSD.
Buckley opened a day spa. The building cost him $1,900 a month in rent. He had moved into an apartment, which was $900 a month.
“Every penny I made was going toward rent,” he says. “I was in tough shape financially.”
He again phoned the Marine from the job fair. They met. Buckley opened up about his problems. The Marine informed Buckley about Soldier On.
“I was interested because I was hoping to get one month’s rent taken care of,” he says. “Instead, they paid for three months. And I guess that changed my entire perception of the program.”
He began going to therapy and taking the life skill classes.
“Soldier On changed everything,” says Buckley, who is single and has three children. “I’m alive and I’m doing great. My kids keep me busy with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts. But I love it.”
‘I can make a difference’
About a year ago, a case manager at Soldier On reached out to Buckley with a job offer that involved driving fellow veterans to and from doctor appointments.
That led to his present position, helping veterans apply for jobs.
“I have to tell you this story,” Buckley says near the end of a two-and-a-half hour interview. “I drove one of our veterans down to Ingalls to apply for a position. He had to take a test, which should’ve lasted a couple of hours. Well, he was out in 30 minutes.
He told me, ‘This just isn’t going to work out for me. I’m ready to go home,’ ” Buckley says. “The person who had run the session was one of Ingalls’ main recruiters.
“I told him, ‘I want you to go back in there and thank them for their time.’ I knew it was a long shot that he would run into the guy again, but I wanted this veteran to be seen apart from everyone else.”
Buckley flashes a huge smile.
“They hired him,” he says. “They … hired … him. And that’s when I realized that even though I went through some rough patches, I can make a difference in other veterans’ lives. And I intend to do that for as long as they will let me.