By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
One of West Virginia’s most decorated Vietnam War veterans didn’t stop serving his fellow veterans when he left the Army after four tours of duty. Today, he does everything from giving rides to the Veterans Administration hospital in Beckley to advising veterans who feel they have nothing to live for.
Jesse Thomas McPeake, now 68, had four tours of duty in Vietnam from 1966 to 1971. He has been called West Virginia’s most decorated veteran of the war, but he is quick to say he is “one of” the state’s most decorated Vietnam veterans. His awards include the Silver Star, five Bronze Stars, and the Purple Heart earned while serving with the infantry and 1st Air Cavalry.
“I’m sure there is somebody out there who hasn’t been recognized or has kept it to themselves. A lot of them do,” he said.
McPeake said he did four straight tours of duty in Vietnam because he didn’t want to leave his fellow soldiers.
“When you first went over, you only had to stay a year, but when you dealt with some good guys, you spent a little bit more time. They would let you extend, so that’s what I kept doing. Extending,” he recalled.
“I came from Vietnam after four tours and I had a top secret clearance, so they sent me to Germany to teach the Germans on our weapons systems. So when it came time to re-enlist after going from Vietnam to Germany, I asked where I was going, and they said, ‘Mr. McPeake, we need you bad on the DMZ in Korea. I said, ‘No, you don’t need me nowhere. I’m going home,” he said.
When McPeake returned home to Kimball, he opened McPeake Furniture. He later went to work for Westmoreland Coal Company. After that coal mine shut down, he joined U.S. Steel in Pineville and worked for 28 years on that company’s longwall operation.
People would ask him about his service with combat infantry and the 1st Cavalry, and he would try to explain.
“A lot of people ask you where was your home base, and when you were in the infantry in the 1st Cav, you didn’t have a home base,” McPeake said. “They dropped you off in the field and that was it. The only time you got a break was when you went in to get ammunition or run across an artillery outfit or something and they would let you stay a couple of days with them to get cleaned up and rested.”
McPeake’s service in Vietnam had its consequences. He described himself as “100 percent due to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Instead of simply retiring, he helped found the McDowell County Visitors and Veterans Center in Kimball seven years ago. Located along Route 52, the center offers several services to the county’s veteran community.
“We opened this center and hauled veterans back and forth from the VA (in Beckley) to the county for McDowell and Wyoming County,” McPeake said at the center after delivering some fundraiser dinners. “We had so many veterans who had no transportation, so we got another driver to take care of [Wyoming County] and we take care of this area. As a matter of fact, I’m getting ready to go to Beckley shortly and pick up ones that are coming back.”
McPeake knew about efforts to open a veterans clinic in Mercer County. A clinic needs to offer more than basic medical services if it is to be of any use to veterans, he said. Veterans who go to the VA in Beckley are often transferred to other facilities if they need specialized care.
The veterans and visitors center also maintains a food bank for veterans. Food is taken to veterans if they do not have transportation, McPeake said. His foster brother, Manuel Horeluk, who also works at the center, said they try to help veterans find a home of their own.
“A lot of people who hear a veteran is homeless think they don’t have a home at all, but they could live with a family member and they would still be considered homeless because that’s not their home,” Horeluk said. “That’s their family’s home. We strive to get them their own apartment or their own house somewhere away from the family. They have their family’s support, but need some independence and it helps them out a lot more.”
Veterans who have some problems often need a home of their own.
“And if you have somebody with bad PTSD, they can get under the skin of whoever they’re staying with, so it’s good for them to have their own place. And if they need help, all they have to do is call the hotline at the VA,” McPeake said.
The center helps connect veterans with services by hosting the Stand Down, a function scheduled for Sept. 13 at the Welch Armory. A Blackhawk helicopter will be on display, and 40 vendors offering services including housing, psychological evaluations, and other assistance are scheduled to attend.
“We started out with 25 veterans coming in,” Horeluk said. “Now it’s up to 175. It’s the largest Stand Down in West Virginia so far.”
Bringing veterans together gives them a chance to offer each other advice as well as an opportunity to socialize.
“They really enjoy themselves, and it gives them a chance to get out and talk to other veterans. Because they could have visited the VA, and got some good information they can pass on. Talking to another veteran really helps,” McPeake said.
A veteran sometimes saves another veteran’s life by offering sympathy and advice. McPeake remembered one veteran who had returned from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. During a trip to Beckley, he noticed the veteran’s mood.
“He was sitting there and I could tell he had something on his mind, and he said, ‘You know, I’m not a Christian, but I do know that the Lord says he won’t put on you more than you can bear, and he said ‘I’m just thinking about committing suicide,’” McPeake recalled.
“And I said, ‘That’s not what He means. When you get home, you need to sit down by yourself and talk to the Lord, and He will give you guidance. Your biggest problem is you’ve got too much time on your hands. Look across the street at the elderly. Go over and knock on their door, and ask if you can paint their porch or cut their grass. See how much satisfaction you get out of doing that. He’s been doing that and he’s been doing a lot better,” McPeake stated.
The visitors and veterans center does not receive any government aid. Keeping its doors open cost about $1,000 a month.
“All on our own,” McPeake said of the center’s funding. “That’s what we did today. We sold dinners to try and pay our power bill and our phone bill and keep the doors open.”
A Coal Camp Reunion will be hosted July 12, 13, and 14 in Kimball to raise more funds for veterans projects.
Churches are allowed to use the center, the hall is rented out for weddings and other functions, and the VFW Lodge 8413 of Kimball-Welch uses the facility, too.
“We told them as long as we’re here, they can come,” McPeake said. “Just give us a time, and the only thing we don’t allow is any drinking.”
A Wall of Honor features the photographs and names of local veterans. A banner featuring the seals of the Army, Marines, Air Force and Navy was accompanied by words highlighting how strongly veterans served their country: All gave Some...Some gave All...
“There couldn’t be a more important statement,” McPeake declared.
The center can be contacted at 304-585-7738.
—Contact Greg Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org