Seeing the guys outside Veterans Restoration Quarters standing in the rain, waiting for the bus, bothered Ross Mejias.
Driving through the cold, windy wetness that day last year as he headed to his job at the Charles George VA Medical Center, the retired Air Force medic thought someone should do something.
“I said to myself, that someone is me,” the Black Mountain resident said in a recent interview. And now, the “something” is done.
Three weeks ago, contractors working for the city of Asheville built bus shelters on opposite sides of U.S. 70 across from Veterans Restoration Quarters, one for riders headed for Black Mountain, one for those headed to Asheville. Mejias was a force in getting the shelters built, said Elias Mathes, Asheville’s transit planning manager.
The shelters were “certainly on our list,” Mathes said, “but Ross was active in highlighting the need for the shelters there.”
The shelters are among 29 bus shelters the city plans to build with bond money that city voters approved in a referendum last year. The new shelters will add to the 44 shelters the city already owns along bus routes that include more than 600 stops, Mathes said. City planners hope to complete construction on the 29 shelters within a year and a half, he said.
Mejias, a nurse, works on the VA Medical Center as a member of its SWAT team – a “special workers augmentation team –assigned to whichever unit needs the most help. He loves the work. “Every day is different,” he said.
He started his armed service duty as a courier and then was a jet engine mechanic for 10 years. He cross-trained as a field medic with the Air Forces forward air controllers. He served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, was stationed throughout Europe and put in 25 years with the military.
Veterans Restoration Quarters (abccm.org) houses more than 240 formerly homeless men in what was once a 125-room motel on Tunnel Road. Run by Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, it provides veterans with housing, meals, laundry facilities, a computer lab, gym, chapel and transportation to VA Medical Center appointments. It also helps the veterans get the training and counseling they need to stabilize and go forward with their lives.
It pained Mejias to see veterans, many of whom are struggling against long odds, standing in the rain while waiting on the bus that takes them to many of the services they need and the opportunities they have.
“Imagine something happened to your brother, how would you feel?” he said, describing the camaraderie he said military life instills. “Would you defend him with your life and everything that you have? Would you put your life on the line for your brother? That’s how it feels. It doesn’t matter whether (the soldier) is male or female – the camaraderie is like that.”
Moved by the site of his comrades in the rain, Mejias started talking to the city and the Veterans Restoration Quarters about the shelters. He helps secure the site for the enclosures on the Quarters’ property, Mathes said. He kept the veterans’ situation in front of city planners. He kept abreast of the project and sweated each delay. All told, he worked on the project for 14 months, Mejias said.
“I stopped by (the shelters two weeks ago) and talked to one of the veterans and asked him how he like the bus stop,” Mejias said. “And he said, ‘man, it was a long time in coming.’ He said it was about time the city put it up. I told him about my project, and he thanked me for it.”
“I’ve been in combat,” Mejias said. “I know what it’s like to have somebody next to you doing the job require to neutralize the bad guys. This needed to be done.”