COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Today, communities across the country are fighting an opioid epidemic.
Thirty years ago, communities wrestled with the crack epidemic.
At the time, young African-American men like Vince McNatt and Stephen Lester were in danger of becoming a statistic.
McNatt and Lester were among 20 veterans recognized by Congressman Steve Stivers Monday — Veterans Day — at Motts Military Museum in Groveport.
McNatt was lucky enough to have a mother with close ties to her faith, but even that wasn’t enough to keep him safe in New York.
One of his mentors was a recruiter for the United States Marine Corps, and McNatt credits him with opening doors he may never have access to otherwise.
“I did what he said and he got me out,” said McNatt.
McNatt would go on to be one of the best Marines, chosen for U.S. Embassy duty. As McNatt describes it, only the best of the best are chosen for such a mission.
He would eventually become a recruiter himself and then after finishing his service, he joined the Department of Jobs and Family Services where he managed a program helping injured veterans.
A recruiter changed Lester’s life as well.
As a young man approaching graduation and with no chance of going to college, Lester was highly concerned about the reports he was hearing on the nightly news.
He recounts hearing stories about how 1-in-4 young African-American men were being killed by a gun.
The eastside of Columbus was not the greatest situation for Lester at the time, and so after a year of conversations with a United States Army recruiter, he signed up to serve his country, but he didn’t tell his parents.
Lester knew his parents wouldn’t approve of his decision.
About two weeks before he was set to head to Kentucky for boot camp, his father asked him if he was going to spill the beans.
He never found out who told his old man, but when Lester returned, his father looked at him in a different way — with respect.
Lester was sent to Germany. At 19-years-old, he watched as East German citizens risked their lives to reach West Germany and freedom.
He took a few pictures, something he was forbidden to do, but did anyway because he was still a kid.
The photos show the reality of what people had to cross to escape a situation dire enough they would risk running across a minefield, being chased by dogs.
Lester said even if they made it to the fence, they were shot.
”That just makes you appreciate home, big time,” said Lester.
Freedom put into perspective right before his eyes at the age of 19.
Back home, it may have been bad for friends of his fighting for survival, navigating the temptation of drugs and financial inequality, but there weren’t landmines. They weren’t being gunned down by soldiers in guard towers.
The Berlin Wall fell a few years later, but stories of oppression and atrocities haven’t stopped coming to our shores from across the Atlantic.
Lester would like to see recruiters be able to return to schools on a more permanent basis.
Currently, schools have to give recruiters as much access to their students as they provide colleges.
Lester said for kids that don’t have the means to attend college or a trade school, or if those options just aren’t for them, then recruitment into the military may make sense.
He also feels that recruitment into the military is often seen in a negative light and that it is all combat and war.
“You can go into finance, you can become a doctor in the military, a nurse,” he said. “You can do military police, law enforcement. Not everything is combat.”
Lester also thinks kids should be taught civics in high school as well. In his opinion, they do not know their rights or how our country works before they leave school and have the ability to vote.