Being a power line worker, the doctor told Nate Humphrey, was not a good idea. In fact, it was foolish and probably dangerous.
After all, Humphrey was on 100 percent medical disability because of injuries that stretched from his brain to his legs, the consequences of hellish combat missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Kuwait.
You and your body cannot do this, the physician at the McGuire VA Center in Richmond, Virginia, advised him. Enjoy your retirement. Stick to your volunteer work helping wounded veterans fish and hunt.
Humphrey, a powerfully built man with sharp blue eyes, does not crack so much as a “told you so” smile as he remembers the conversation from less than a year ago.
“I politely disagreed,” he said. “Maybe a little scratched and dented. But not disabled.”
He took a physical, sought a VA re-evaluation and successfully worked to downgrade his disability classification. In October 2016, he joined more than a dozen 20-somethings at the Power Line Worker Training School near his home in the Southside Virginia community of Amelia Court House.
At 37, Humphrey now is the oldest apprentice lineman in the annals of Crewe-based Southside Electric Cooperative, where he has found the fraternity that he missed after 13 years and three months in the U.S. Army.
“I think I’ve found my second calling,” he said. “My first was to jump out of airplanes and do the nation’s dirty work. I used to defend the country and now I light it up.”
Service to Country
When it came to choosing a branch of the service, Humphrey admits he was a bit of a contrarian. His grandfather was a Marine. His mother was in the Air Force. His father was a Navy SEAL.
Humphrey, who grew up in Greece and Spain among several places, elected to enlist in the Army after he graduated from Lyman Ward Military Academy in Alabama.
“I originally joined the Army to get out of the states. I wanted to go to Korea first, and when I got to basic training, they were asking for volunteers to go to airborne school. So I went to that. They asked for volunteers to go to RASP, which is the Ranger Assessment Selection Program. I went to that. A couple months later, we were in Afghanistan after 9/11 kicked off,” he said.
Humphrey served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 82nd Airborne Division and the 25th Infantry Division, rising to the level of staff sergeant (E6). He was in seven combat deployments totaling 48 months.
He was wounded in Afghanistan and in Iraq, taking shrapnel in both legs and suffering a traumatic brain injury from an improvised explosive device—a roadside bomb. He has been to 12 funerals for his fallen brothers in arms and missed others because he was in no condition to attend. He earned a Purple Heart and a bevy of other honors.
“I was just a kid the first time my feet were in combat, so it makes you grow up real quick,” he said. “I’m very honored to serve my country and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I signed up for the job. I did the job they asked me to do. Being wounded was just part of the game.”
Because of his injuries and post-traumatic-stress disorder, the Army moved him to a desk job writing publications for its Training and Doctrine Command in Fort Eustis, Virginia. When the Army started downsizing, Humphrey was retired on medical grounds.
“I really wanted to stay in. I really enjoyed it,” he said. “Unfortunately, my name came up on the list.”
Service to Colleagues
Humphrey was depressed and at loose ends. He and his wife Candice, whom he met in Kuwait when she was in the Navy, moved to her home of Amelia County, southwest of Richmond. He needed an outlet for the adrenalin that fueled him on the battlefields of the Mandozayi District and Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
To Bud DePlatchett of Smithfield, Virginia, Humphrey’s anguish was familiar—a veteran struggling to regain his purpose. DePlatchett is the East Coast organizer for Freedom Hunters, a nonprofit that specializes in outdoor adventures for active duty and combat veterans of all generations, their families and their children.
DePlatchett invited Humphrey, an avid sportsman, to a couple of hunts in 2015. Humphrey was hooked and became the outreach coordinator for the Richmond area.
“I knew I had to be a part of this,” Humphrey explained. “I think that I was spared for a reason, and the reason is Freedom Hunters. In the Army, we’ve got a saying: ‘We don’t leave a fallen comrade.’ Well, just because somebody is disabled, that doesn’t mean they should be pushed to the side.”
Given the injuries that many of his fellow warriors deal with on a daily basis, Humphrey knew that just any old wheelchair wouldn’t fit the bill to take them fishing and hunting.
DePlatchett told him an all-terrain wheelchair that could maneuver over rough or mucky ground was a $15,000-20,000 pipe dream beyond the all-volunteer group’s means. Freedom Hunters already had turned down more than 200 requests because it lacked sufficient chairs. The organization had just one, stationed in Colorado.
Challenge accepted. With some fishing tournaments and a banquet headlined by country singer Darryl Worley, Humphrey helped Freedom Hunters raise about $80,000 in six months, enough for three all-terrain track chairs and a van to haul them.
“I was like, “There is no possible way he can do this.’ And he did it,” DePlatchett said. “He makes everything a mission. He and his wife Candice have just really been a blessing to the organization.”
Nationally, Freedom Hunters took 1,000 participants on outdoors expeditions last year, with 350 in Virginia alone.
“It’s just about getting them back out to the things they once enjoyed before they were injured,” Humphrey said.
Service to Co-op
Along the way, Humphrey, a member of Southside Electric, contacted President and CEO Jeff Edwards about possible co-op involvement with Freedom Hunters. Edwards was receptive, and the co-op started a raffle and other fundraisers to help with the purchase of a wheelchair.
As Edwards remembers it, he had another question for Humphrey. Your work is volunteer; what do you do otherwise?
“He said, ‘I’ve got my disability check from the military. I could not find a job that challenged me the way it did being an airborne infantryman,” Edwards recalled.
That struck a chord with the CEO, whose father served in the famous 11th Airborne Division before becoming an electric utility lineman.
He suggested Humphrey attend an open house to learn more about the Power Line Worker School, a partnership between the state’s community college system and its electric co-ops.
Humphrey’s electrical experience had consisted of eight months as a meter reader for a utility in Tampa, Florida, before he joined the military. After watching a video about the school, he knew he was about to fill a void in his life.
And disability became ability.
“It’s a brotherhood, and that’s what I was missing when I got out of the Army, the camaraderie,” he said. “I love it. It’s very demanding; it’s about the person to the left and right of you. … Lead the way and be safe every day.”
Initially, prospective lineworkers in the 11-week class called him “Grandpa,” but they quickly switched to “Sarge” out of respect.
“He was a great guy,” said classmate Al Barker. “He was always trying to help you out. Even though he’s older, that experience helped out a lot. He’s wise.”
After graduation from the school’s third class, Southside Electric hired Humphrey in January. He started on a service truck, doing calls to houses and fixing security lights before being moved to an underground crew.
“He’s definitely a leader. You could tell the leadership qualities were there the first time you met him,” Edwards said. “We get a lot of people out of school. They’re good young men, but they’ve got some maturing to do. Not so with Nate. He’s very confident; he’s a good speaker.”
In fact, Humphrey is such a compelling messenger that he was tapped earlier this month to deliver the keynote address at the banquet following the annual Gaff-n-Go Lineman’s Rodeo in Virginia. To a huge ovation, he asked the audience to remember the similarities between the soldiers and utility linemen that represent the backbone of America.
He had a personal note to remember, too, and it was a single sentence tacked onto the end of his prepared remarks.
“I’m Nate ‘Sarge’ Humphrey, a veteran, an apprentice lineman, and I am my brother’s keeper.”
Learn more about Freedom Hunters on its Facebook page.
Steven Johnson is a staff writer at NRECA.