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For veteran, an injured life, injured career | A Renton Reporter special report
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second installment in a three-part series exploring services available to veterans in the Renton area, leading up to the vote in the Aug. 16 primary election on the renewal of a property tax levy to support veterans and human services needs.
Don McKee was just a teenager when he joined the Army in 1984. The 17-year-old needed his parents’ permission to enlist. A wayward youth, he said the Army straightened him up for a time. But, his dreams of having the military shape his life for the better came to an end about eight weeks into basic training.
For a quarter century, the 43-year-old has had his life riddled with pain from an injury he suffered in that training.
In 2003 the U.S. Army Medical Department reported that injuries were the leading health problem in the Army. They cause more than nine million limited-duty days per year due to injury.
McKee’s injury derailed his chances to deploy, later hindered his civilian career and contributed to a methamphetamine addiction, which led ultimately to homelessness.
If it wasn’t for the Compass Veterans Center where he now lives, he said he would probably still be out on the streets doing drugs.
The center in Renton, which serves as housing for many in McKee’s shoes, opened about a year ago.
The veterans who live at the center stand to benefit from the approval of an existing levy on the upcoming Aug. 16 primary and special election ballot. The Veterans and Human Services Levy – Proposition 1 – would replace an existing levy and fund capital facilities and services that reduce medical costs, homelessness and involvement in the criminal-justice system. Half of the proceeds would support veterans and their families.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are about 107,000 homeless veterans nationwide on any given night. There are about 200,000 homeless veterans during the course of a year nationwide.
In King County there are 1,150 homeless veterans, according to the King County Department of Community and Human Services. That number is based on a combination of sources that include a 2010 One Night Count and regional systems that track homelessness.
McKee was one of those homeless veterans in 2009. This is how he describes his life at the Compass Center:
“I went from being homeless to this,” he said. “This has been a God sent; I mean it changed my life drastically.”
His life once was rife with drug use. Having done drugs in high school, he was no stranger to them and picked up the habit again after he got out of the Army.
“I got into cocaine about two years after I got out of the service and did cocaine for years but always kept a job,” he said.
Cocaine was his gateway to meth and made him so unstable that he lost jobs.
He was an electrician, worked for private contractors and said the drugs were easy to come by in that environment.
During this whole time, McKee was plagued by the back injury he suffered in basic training.
He entered the Army in 1984 and was trained to repair tank turrets. During a simulation exercise, he was hit by an artillery simulator. When he turned to avoid the blast, he herniated a disc in his back and in the process hurt his hip. The simulator went off and flipped him.
Eventually he could not complete the Army’s required physicals for deployment abroad and he was honorably discharged with a medical disability in 1985.
Fast forward years later and McKee’s back is only getting worse as he taxes it as an electrician. This coupled with his drug use would have him in and out of “homelessness spells” and out of work.
“I got clean, but the last five years being that my back was hurting so bad, the meth was actually helping the pain and that’s what I was using as a pain med.”
McKee’s breakthrough came after things got so bad he could barely walk, his legs hurt and he threatened suicide. He went to the VA Hospital one night and just broke down. This was mid-2009.
“I was going off on them, I said I had enough,” he recalls. “I said my back’s killing me, we need to do something. I’m addicted to meth, I need to get clean.”
He would relapse into drugs after a brief incarceration but got clean and sober in October 2009 and hasn’t relapsed since.
He heard about the Compass Veterans Center when he was at the Addiction Treatment Center at the VA Hospital.
Under a special grant program, his counselor got him into the Compass Center. He was originally supposed to go to a Seattle center, but he didn’t like the shelter-like dormitory setting with mattresses on the floor, he said.
He also was concerned about exposure to other drug users.
So, they told him about the Renton Compass Veterans Center, and he agreed to go.
Now he has a furnished studio apartment in a clean secured building.
McKee has a case manager he meets with biweekly. He is connected to the King County Veterans Program. He has access to credit counselors and he uses the Salvation Army Renton Rotary Food Bank that’s nearby.
If he’s hurting really badly, he gets depressed. But, his biweekly check-ins help him to not be reclusive and stuck contemplating his life in his head.
McKee calls the program excellent for a veteran “trying to get back on his feet again, trying to get back into society and start doing what he needs to do.”
Today he has difficulty getting around, so he uses a motorized wheelchair for almost everywhere he goes. But, despite his physical limitations he still has hope for the future.
Now McKee wants to be an electrical inspector. He is studying business administration with an emphasis in project management at DeVry University in Bellevue.
He has a 4.0 grade point average and on Mother’s Day this past year he presented his mother with his report card.
Once a bad high school student, he wrote “Look Mom I don’t have to hide this one” on the card.
She has it hanging on her refrigerator.