It’s a long way from a ground war in Afghanistan to the top of a 40-foot power pole in Amelia County, Virginia.
For Nate Humphrey, a text message bridged the distance.
After the U.S. Army dispatched him into medical retirement, Humphrey had been in sagging spirits until Bud DePlatchett, the East Coast organizer for the nonprofit Freedom Hunters organization, suggested in early 2015 that he might benefit from a hunting trip.
Just a few hours in, Humphrey bagged a deer then fired off a text message to DePlatchett, attaching a selfie with a wide grin and an upturned finger toward the animal in the distance.
“The first time I talked to him, he was pretty withdrawn and quiet,” says DePlatchett, who is based in Smithfield, Virginia. “Then he had this huge smile on his face, and it was like, ‘Nate, I’m happy for you, man.’ You could see a change in him.”
That image of pure glee marked Humphrey’s first step toward volunteerism with Freedom Hunters and, eventually, a new career as a lineman at Southside Electric Cooperative (SEC).
“It’s a great story on so many levels. He’s a veteran and a co-op lineman, and in addition, there’s the Freedom Hunters project,” says Richard G. Johnstone Jr., CEO of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives. “It’s the best of what co-ops represent.”
'A Good Day in the Woods'
The son of military parents, Humphrey traveled the world as a kid, spending time in Greece and Spain.
“My mom was in the Air Force, my dad was in the Navy, my grandfather was in the Marine Corps, and I decided to be the outcast of the family and join the Army,” he says.
Humphrey went through airborne school, and then 9/11 changed everything. He was deployed to Afghanistan, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Iraq—seven combat deployments totaling 48 months. Among his injuries: shrapnel in both legs and a traumatic brain injury from an improvised explosive device, or IED. He does not dwell outwardly on the death and devastation that surrounded him every day; instead, he tries to fix on the positive.
“I met people all over from different cultures and different ways of life,” he says. “Really, the good thing about it was the brotherhood and camaraderie of having everyone there. You learn a lot. … I’m very honored to serve my country, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Humphrey missed that sense of fraternity after the Army, in downsizing mode, medically retired him for good, even though he was successfully working a desk job on manuals and publications for its Training and Doctrine Command in Fort Eustis, Virginia.
That’s when DePlatchett came across Humphrey through a mutual acquaintance and thought a good day in the woods might bring him out of his shell.
“It sounds corny, but a lot of times with a lot of our recipients, we’ve seen the healing power of the outdoors,” DePlatchett says. “He came back to me after a couple hunts and said, ‘You know, this has really been life-changing for me. I want to help more of my brothers and sisters from the military get outdoors and get us back together.’”
'Spare for a Reason'
Humphrey was a man on a mission. Learning that Colorado-based Freedom Hunters had only one wheelchair equipped to maneuver over rugged or swampy land, he started a fundraising campaign to bring one to the mid-Atlantic.
After six months and a concert assist from friend and country singer Darryl Worley, he’d helped raise $80,000, enough for three all-track chairs and a transport trailer.
“I think that I was spared for a reason, and the reason is Freedom Hunters,” Humphrey says. “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.”
When Humphrey was soliciting contributions, he contacted Crewe-based SEC. The co-op was a logical donor choice: Humphrey and his wife, Candice, a Navy veteran whom he met in Kuwait, are SEC members living in Amelia Court House, about an hour southwest of Richmond, Virginia.
Jeff Edwards, president and CEO of SEC since 2007, was eager to help. SEC launched an initiative to support Freedom Hunters by raising money through raffles and other fundraisers to assist with the purchase of one all-terrain wheelchair.
The co-op publicized it in its July 2016 newsletter. Edwards probed a little deeper, though. Your work is volunteer, he said to Humphrey; 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 recalls. That struck a chord with the CEO, whose father served in the famed 11th Airborne Division before becoming an electric utility lineman.
Edwards extended an invitation for Humphrey to attend a briefing about the Power Line Worker School, which kicked off in 2016. Operated through Southside Virginia Community College with the help of Virginia co-ops, the program trains would-be linemen.
“They played a video, and after the video, the first sentence the instructor said was, ‘What’s a lineman? It’s about camaraderie and brotherhood,’” Humphrey recalls. “I knew right then and there that I had to be a part of this.”
It wasn’t as easy as signing on the dotted line. Humphrey’s physicians at a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Richmond were dead set against his new career option because he was 100 percent medically disabled.
Once again, Humphrey was a man on a mission. In his words, he was “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.
At first, classmates like Al Barker called him “Grandpa” because at 36, he was of a different generation. When they saw how Humphrey carried and conducted himself, they gave him a new nickname: “Sarge.”
“He was a great guy,” Barker says. “He was always trying to help you out. Even though he’s older, that experience helped out a lot. He’s wise.”
Humphrey says he is learning the trade every day. In some ways, being a lineman is not that different from being a soldier. “Your life depends on the man beside you, safety is always the greatest tool in the success of a mission, and at the end of the day, you and your brothers want everyone to go home intact.”
He is continuing his work with Freedom Hunters; in fact, DePlatchett receives a selfie text now and then from Humphrey, his Virginia outreach coordinator, when he is fixing lines or restoring power in the field.
“Nate is a man’s man. He’s proud that he’s climbing these poles and doing this hard work,” DePlatchett says.
In May, Humphrey was tapped to deliver the banquet address at the annual Gaff-n-Go Lineman’s Rodeo in Richmond, one of the biggest regional events of its kind. The hard hat was off. The sportcoat was on. But it was pure Nate underneath.
“I think I’ve found my second calling,” he says. “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.”