NASCAR Tech opens spot for vets to relax, find help

Charles Wright is excited about his future after graduating from NASCAR Technical Institute in December. He’s confident he now has the training to open a custom fabrication shop someday.

Wright, 34, also is a combat veteran who served active duty in the Marines from 1994 to 2003. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

On Tuesday, Wright addressed the audience as his alma mater opened an 810-square-foot Veteran Center where veterans can receive counseling, access computers linking them to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, grab a cup of coffee, watch TV or have lunch.

“This is a place to relax, to talk with other veterans,” Wright said after a ribbon-cutting for the center, where NASCAR car hoods showcasing each branch of the military are displayed on a wall.

NASCAR Technical Institute is the perfect setting for a veterans assistance center, Wright and school officials said. The school has graduated about 700 students who are veterans or dependents of veterans since it opened in 2003. About 200 veterans are currently enrolled at the school.

“It’s huge,” NASCAR Tech student Clayton Pace, 31, said of the center. He served four combat tours in Iraq and also is on a Veterans Administration work study at NASCAR Tech, helping process paperwork for fellow veterans to get their benefits in place. “It gives all the veterans a place to go, a place for solitude” in the middle of a hectic school or work day.

“It will be a great place for them not only to relax but to have services easily accessible,” NASCAR Tech President Jennifer Bergeron said.

The Veteran Center will also be open for meetings of veterans groups, including NASCAR Tech’s own Battle Buddies.

John Hedley, a Vietnam War veteran and president of the nonprofit Welcome Home Veterans Living History Museum at Richard’s Coffee Shop, said his organization donated $2,500 to help the center open.

He said he will encourage veterans of all wars who frequent the downtown Mooresville coffee shop to visit the new center to chat with students who are veterans.

Wright, who helped keep the crowds away as fellow Marines toppled the statue of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003, said he’ll have plenty of stories to share.

“I’m going to start volunteering at Welcome Home Veterans, too,” said Wright, one of 20 veterans in NASCAR Tech’s history to win the school’s Humble Hero Award for volunteering.