Lake Norman & Mooresville

Veterans come home in garage

As awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder has improved, recent and current U.S. wars have led to a surge in veterans who need help readjusting to civilian life, said Sue Roberson of Statesville.

Some soldiers who've seen combat get lost during the transition from soldier to civilian, with tragic consequences, she said.

Some veterans with PTSD resign themselves to a reclusive life. Others have trouble obtaining a college degree or holding a job. In such cases, every aspect of a soldier's life is affected, from relationships to finances, said Roberson.

To help ease the transition, Roberson started the Manpower to Horsepower program in Mooresville a couple of years ago.

Roberson was inspired when she noticed that disabled people couldn't participate in the Richard Petty Driving Experience in Concord.

What originally began as a project to create a handicap-accessible car for the Driving Experience morphed into a hands-on program that teaches veterans motorsport management.

Roberson said she hopes the classes make the transition to civilian life easier.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit became affiliated with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. That means students can use Veteran Affairs aid to earn a 16-week certification or a two-year associate's degree.

During school, students study and build cars in the shop. They will also accompany the cars they've worked on to dirt races and other sporting events.

The hands-on environment works well for a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, said Roberson. They often have a short attention span and can't sit long in a traditional classroom setting.

Enclosed classrooms can also set off anxiety triggers, said Roberson.

Emmett Thomas, 36, an Army veteran and a student in the program, recalled his days as a UNC Charlotte student after returning from Afghanistan in 2004.

"There would be 200 people sitting behind me that I didn't know in a large classroom, and that sort of thing freaks me out," said Thomas, who has been diagnosed with agoraphobia and panic disorder.

Sometimes, Thomas said, dealing with large crowds on sidewalks would be discouraging enough for him to turn around and skip class for the day.

Roberson said flexibility has been the key to earning the veterans' trust overtime.

For instance, when she first opened her doors two years ago, she allowed soldiers to carry their weapons with them and smoke cigarettes inside. And no one berates a student when he is having a particularly difficult day and decides to come to school a few hours late, said Roberson.

That flexibility has proven invaluable to Thomas, who has trouble sleeping at night.

In the military, he often stood guard while everyone else slept.

Now, he finds it hard to sleep when everyone else is sleeping because he feels he still must stand guard.

"These guys don't trust easily," said Roberson. "They look at crowds like everyone in that crowd is the enemy. You can't take it out of them. It takes time."

Matt Bove, a 25-year-old Navy veteran, said that in the two weeks he's been a student at Manpower to Horsepower, he's slowly felt himself letting down his guard and becoming more comfortable.

"People don't understand what we went through. They assume we're the same when we get back and we're not," he said.

More than 90 percent of Bove's body was covered in burns after a boiler room explosion on a Navy ship. After the accident, Bove said he isolated himself from others in his New York home.

But then Bove heard about Roberson's program. Within two weeks, he'd packed everything and moved to North Carolina.

"This gives me a means to wake up every day and go do something," he said.

It also helps that students are surrounded by other military members and veterans, said Thomas.

"We've all been there, so we all understand one another," he said. "We can communicate on a certain level, and it makes it easier to relate and let our guard down a little bit."

The protective environment that Manpower to Horsepower offers helps veterans heal and become accustomed to civilian life.

"It doesn't take long to become a part of it, but it takes forever to separate from it," Thomas said of the military way of life. "You have to find that right environment to make the transition easier."

Over the past several months, Roberson said, her school has grown as word has spread among veterans.

Today, Manpower to Horsepower teaches 18 students, and more sign up every week.

The organization will soon expand from one 12,000-square-foot building to three buildings totaling 44,000 square feet to accommodate the growth.

There's a need for tools and funding year-round, said Roberson.

"It matters," she said, "that these guys know someone cares and that they can make a difference."