Former Marine Kevin McReynolds knew only one thing when he ventured into the backyard of a decrepit house on the South Side last week — help finally might be in reach.
Henry Mack was waiting. Within minutes, he turned McReynolds' struggles with a Veterans Affairs hospital and with the Social Security Administration into an action plan. Mack has a matter-of-fact name for the free service: Veterans Helping Veterans Now.
"Most people you call are either too booked, or say they're there to help, but don't," McReynolds says. "[Mack] actually does."
Mack, a 70-year-old retired construction business owner, specializes in navigating the vast federal system that thousands of veterans encounter when trying to access services. The first battle was his own. He says he spent decades fighting for benefits after returning from the Vietnam War.
Now he and a small group of volunteers are working to turn the boarded-up house on Jefferson Davis Highway in the Blackwell neighborhood into an outreach center to connect people with Veterans Affairs and programs such as Wounded Warriors. He doesn't know exactly how many veterans he's helped during the past 15 years of doing this work, but the need is outpacing phone calls and improvised meeting spaces. He applied for nonprofit status last year.
"When we returned to the world from the pond, it wasn't easy," Mack says, using a slang term for the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where he served four tours in the Navy. "I've had to kick and scratch every doggone day."
McReynolds, who served as a Marine for five years, has had a cascade of issues following an on-duty injury that took three of his fingers. He never received a medical discharge, he says, and at one point struggled with a drug addiction that has meant "doors slammed in my face."
"We were young," Mack tells McReynolds. "A lot of us are scarred, or damaged."
Among them is Calvin Libron Jr., who upon returning from Vietnam has had debilitating health issues that he attributes to Agent Orange, an herbicide sprayed by U.S. forces. Libron credits Mack's guidance with securing benefits, saying he waited five years in a Veterans Affairs backlog.
"Without Mr. Mack," Libron says, "I don't know what the hell I would have done."
Henry Mease, liaison for the 8th District's Reva Trammell, says the councilwoman has worked with Mack for more than a decade. The pair is trying to bring medical staff from nearby Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center to the neighborhood.
"When he goes after something," Mease says of Mack, "he does it the right way."
Progress on the outreach center has been slow. Mack has been renovating the house, which he owns, for a few years. He says two break-ins set it back. While the outreach center will focus on veterans, Mack wants to help anyone who walks in the door to find shelter, food or work. He puts a special focus on working with felons.
"Every family has a veteran," Mack says. "And now, pretty much every family has a felon. How can we turn this vicious cycle around? That's the key."