Home and belonging mean something different to each of us, and Lee Mahaffey learned the importance of those two ideas early in life. While he was a South Carolina native, Lee moved around the state, and he and his mother never quite settled anywhere. As a small boy in bad neighborhoods, Lee learned the hard lessons of perseverance and determination, how to fight and press on, but he also learned to love adventure and new people and places. He lived everywhere from a car to a beach to a trailer to a hotel. Home became more of a feeling, a sense, rather than a place, and as Herman Melville once wrote – “it wasn’t down on any map; true places never are.”
After attending twelve different schools, Lee finally became the first person in his family to go further than 9th grade, graduating high school. Not settling, feeling the tug of adventure and travel and compelled to do his part, Lee joined the Marine Corps in early 2005 under an open contract without the guarantee of any specific occupational specialty. “I just want to do my part, do my job, and be a part of history,” he told the recruiter in Greenville, SC. The Marines assigned him as a driver in a motor transportation unit aboard Camp Hansen, Okinawa, but he soon injured his shoulder during an operation. Lee was placed in charge of training, but as his nagging to deploy peaked in August 2006, the Corps sent him to Iraq.
Once in Iraq, Lee ended up on route clearance teams tasked with removing enemy explosives along main roads. Traveling over much of Iraq, he also landed on security teams and behind vehicle-mounted machine guns. While posted in Al-Taqaddum called “TQ” adjacent to infamous battlegrounds Habbaniyah and Fallujah, Lee suffered a debilitating blow to the head. Yet, Lee persisted, finished his tour in Iraq, and returned to Okinawa in the spring of 2007 before being transferred to Camp Pendleton, CA. Lee was married the same year and welcomed a daughter to the world the following year. However, the extent of Lee’s injuries wasn’t known until he collapsed during physical training and was sent to the naval hospital. Assessments revealed he couldn’t continue service and was discharged after a stint in the Corps’ battalion for the wounded.
After moving back to Greenville, SC, and months of aimlessness and losing numerous veteran friends to suicide, Lee connected to Upstate Warrior Solution (UWS) through a VA social worker. Recognizing Lee’s perseverance and potential, UWS extended a fellowship, and Lee soon found himself deep in the veteran community of upstate South Carolina. The first veteran he encountered, a fellow Iraq veteran said, “I’m tired of people telling me I have 100% disability rating, and I should just be happy. Sometimes, I just drive home the same way every day and I see this tree and I just want to drive my truck full speed right into that tree. I just want to get some rest.” Lee understood immediately and convinced the veteran there was hope. The next person he met was from another generation, a Vietnam veteran, and the two talked at length. Lee slowly realized how much he could do for him, what resources he could tell him about. Hope swelled in the veteran’s eyes. Lee knew his new friend wouldn’t go home and make a bad decision, one he couldn’t undo. The gentleman stuck out his hand, and Lee gripped it saying, “If you ever need anything or if you just want to shoot the breeze, call me.”
The man replied, “This is what I needed more than anything today. You just don’t know what you’ve done for me.” Lee said, “I think I have some idea, sir. You’re so very welcome.”
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