When a land mine took Sgt. Mike McNaughton's right leg in Afghanistan, the explosion was still ringing in his ears as he warned fellow soldiers to be careful as they came to his aid.
Now, 17 years later, McNaughton still looks out for comrades who are no longer in uniform. McNaughton is outreach specialist for Volunteers of America Greater Baton Rouge, serving a growing homeless veteran population.
“He knows what the veterans have been through because he obviously has shared that,” said Randy Nichols, former executive director for the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless. “He has great empathy for those veterans out of that shared experience. He is strong and quiet, but his strength is a very gentle one. He does real good work for veterans and is committed to doing the work.”
McNaughton, 48, was honorably discharged from the Army in 2000, but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he joined the Louisiana National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 to find and dispose of land mines. He stepped on one on Jan. 7, 2003.
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Ten days later, President George W. Bush, visiting wounded servicemen at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., asked McNaughton how he was doing. He told the president that he’d soon be able to outrun him. Fifteen months later, they ran together at the White House. McNaughton regularly ran on his prosthetic leg until wear and tear on his body made him switch to cycling.
McNaughton went on to work for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, then the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs. In the latter job, McNaughton informed the state’s veterans of the federal and state benefits due them. That exposed him to various nonprofit organizations, including VOA. He took his current job in November 2017.
Although employed by VOA, McNaughton is based at the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless facility on North 17th Street, where he locates and assists homeless veterans. Duties include securing lodging or helping them access veteran benefits. Their problems are often deeper than the immediate need.
“This job, you have to have a lot of patience, and when someone needs help, you have to help them right away because the next day they might not want it,” McNaughton said. “You’re dealing with mental health or drug dependency or both. You also tie that into family problems, girlfriend problems, wife problems. … I try to be there to help (VA officials) understand this is what this person needs. Sometimes they don’t know how to express it.”
Many services are available for veterans, but those in need may not know about them or how to work through the requirements, such as seeing a mental health counselor and taking medical tests.
“Once they get into a place, they’re pretty good, but … (then they say,) ‘OK, I want to go into transitional housing. I’m ready. Put me in,’ ” McNaughton said. “It’s not that easy.
“Also, they don’t have transportation. You’re here and have to go all the way to Essen. That’s another problem. You don’t have bus passes. A lot of times, I’ll buy my own bus passes or give them a ride just to help them out.”
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Sometimes he calls on friends for help.
On a late Friday afternoon, a homeless veteran showed up at Southern University to register for classes. McNaughton knew the first priority was housing. He called a friend who had hotel rewards points, enough to provide the vet with two nights of lodging until a shelter spot opened.
“The last time I saw her she was working in Home Depot, and she’s got health care and is doing good,” he said. “That’s what we want. It doesn’t always work like that. A lot of them, it might take them two times or eight times to go through a program or even get arrested. What I try to do is no matter whether it’s the sixth time or eighth time, I’m ready to get them in a program.”
McNaughton works during weekday business hours and has the choice on whether to take after-hours calls. He usually takes them.
“I know there aren’t many after-hours people doing this type of stuff. I end up feeling guilty,” he said.
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He called his wife an angel for putting up with his hours.
"She totally understands. She knows it bothers me," he said. "But I try to balance it out. I did that with the military. I was a workaholic, and she’s seen that side. When I finally got out, I understood there is time for family, and she’ll let me know if I get carried away.”
Despite his efforts and those of others, McNaughton said helping homeless veterans defies simple solutions.
“In military terminology, you fight the battles, but the war, I think, will be never-ending,” he said. “That’s my opinion. I know the VA and similar organizations say they’re going to end homelessness. … Between the mental health and the drugs, I don’t see that ever changing.”