Veteran opens East Tennessee center to help fellow vets

Michael said isolation is the core issue with which many veterans suffer.
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Published: Mar. 18, 2023 at 10:54 AM EDT
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ROGERSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Veterans Center of East Tennessee in Rogersville, opened by a veteran, helps bring individuals out of isolation and into a center that provides community, resources and classes to help them thrive in society.

The center officially opened its doors in December.

Michael and Jessica Paul of Tazewell, Tennessee, run the nonprofit. Michael decided to open the center after the closure of Forward Flag in 2022.

“Whenever they shut down, we saw how it affected a lot of the veterans,” Michael said. “So my wife and I decided we had the opportunity to open our own facilities. God had laid it in our laps.”

Michael said their goal is to help veterans mentally, physically and spiritually.

As a veteran, Michael has struggled with substance abuse issues in the past. He said through running the center he is able to help other veterans through their personal battles.

“Three years ago, I was homeless and living under a bridge,” Michael said. “I was strung out on meth. I felt alone and worthless. I had nothing going for me. With this center, my wife and I can help these veterans, whether it’s with suicide prevention, substance abuse, depression or anxiety.”

Michael said they provide veteran-to-veteran support.

“I physically watched veterans that come out of isolation and into this office,” Michael said. “There’s nothing better than watching their spirit come alive. I mean, we’ve had guys walk in here with their heads down, and you can just look at him and tell that they’re beaten, and within days of coming in here and hanging out with these other vets, they’re smiling.”

Michael said isolation is the core issue with which many veterans suffer.

“With veterans, isolation is the key element to everything,” Michael said. “Isolation brings on depression, and depression brings on substance abuse and suicidal ideation. By pulling them out of the isolation, you’re able to help them battle the depression, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. Just pulling them out of isolation and getting them around other veterans, you will watch them grow.”

The veteran’s center provides many resources and activities, including laundry access, showers, live music and fellowship. It also offer several classes, including a computer skills class, leatherworking and woodworking.

Michael said the center offers many of these classes to help veterans learn new skills and trades that they can use to earn extra income.

“We’ve found that with the economy being on the rise as it is with the price of inflation, a lot of veteran’s pay didn’t increase with their disability income,” Michael said. “So a lot of them, we’ve talked to, struggle just on their one income. So we decided to come up with not only hobbies but little skilled trades to teach these guys where they can go out and make a little extra money for themselves if they want to.”

Michael said the classes also could be therapeutic for the veterans.

“I can personally vouch for how much the leather shop helps these veterans,” Michael said. “I know when I get up in my head and go in there and keep my hands busy, it helps. I’ve seen it with a lot of these guys. They come in here after having night terrors and having to deal with something; they go in that leatherworking shop and work all day.”

Michael said these kinds of activities can give veterans a purpose.

“It gives you a sense of purpose,” Michael said. “Everybody wants to feel that sense of purpose. When a veteran gets out of the military, that sense of purpose is gone.”

Jessica, whose father was a veteran, said she wants to help these veterans have better lives.

“It’s about the fellowship,” Jessica said. “It gives them back a mission. We have an old man and we bought trash bags just for him to change trash because it makes him feel like he’s on another mission and he has a purpose.”

One other resource the center provides is a gym. The center’s gym is named after Glynn Kruger, an Army Vietnam veteran with Meniere’s disease who has to walk on a treadmill daily.

Kruger said he would be in assisted living if it weren’t for the center.

Airforce veteran Billy Courtney, the pastor of Faith Assembly Church, helps financially support the center through his church.

Courtney said the center is a place where veterans can go and talk with each other.

The center also has an on-site chaplain who serves as a veteran liaison to talk with the veterans and help them through their struggles.

The chaplain, Michael Tapp, who joined the center after three years of isolation in the mountains, said he wants the veterans to see God through him.

Rick Thomas, who served in the Navy Reserves from 1960-66, said the center saved his life.

After his wife of 29 years passed, Thomas lost his sense of purpose and said the center gave that back to him.

“This place saved my sanity,” Thomas said. “It’s a place where you can feel safe. It gives us a place to come. We can feel like we belong. I had reached the point where I didn’t feel like I had a purpose because, for the last six years, I had been my wife’s caregiver, and then all of a sudden, I had nothing. Then I came down here, and I’ve got something again.”

The center is looking to add alcohol and drug counseling, which will be conducted by Jessica, who plans to get her license in late April. It also plans to offer a 12-step life recovery program.

The center has several events scheduled for 2023, including a bike and car show in June.

The center accepts monetary donations, non-perishable food and clothing in good condition.