Story By Natalie Salvatore
Photos By Hannah Goldfinger and Contributed By Donald Wilson
After serving in the military for almost 30 years, one local veteran continues to give back to his community, now through providing lawn services to disabled veterans and senior citizens in the surrounding Auburn-Opelika area. A husband to his high school sweetheart, a father to five and a grandfather to four, Donald Wilson loves to help others, including his customers.
“I am a servant leader who is just doing the Lord’s work,” Wilson said.
Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, Wilson first enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school in 1987. This was not the path he had originally planned for himself, he said. Wilson explained how none of his family members had ever served, and he had wanted to play college basketball after high school. However, things changed when his wife — girlfriend at the time — became pregnant with the couple’s first child. He said he knew he wanted to provide for his child and to take responsibility as a soon-to-be dad, unlike the examples he had been surrounded by during this time in his life.
“At the time, I was working at Kroger as a bagger, not making much money and living at home with my mom, giving her half of my check to pay bills,” he said. “I had to give my girlfriend money to buy maternity clothes.”
He remembers seeing a uniformed Marine officer walking through where he used to live and recalled how impressed he was by the soldier’s sharp-looking uniform. He asked what branch the man was serving in.
“What really caught my eye was when he pulled out five $100 bills,” Wilson said. “I was sold.”
His upcoming fatherhood, combined with meeting this soldier that day, encouraged Wilson to enlist, he said.
“The next day, I was at the Marines recruiting office looking to join, but they were all out for lunch,” he said. “So, I waited and waited, until finally an Army sergeant saw me and took me to lunch, and the rest is history.”
Such a long military career came with both its positive impacts as well as its downsides, Wilson said. Serving made Wilson not only a better soldier as the years went on, but also a better father, he said. He took the experiences he had during the Army, good and bad, and applied them to how he raised his children. Mentorship and guidance he received from the various leaders in the Army ultimately inspired him to reach new goals, both within the Army and beyond, he said. Not only did earn the rank of command sergeant major, but he also pursued higher education and earned his master’s degree.
However, Wilson’s decision to join the Army introduced him to many different issues, such as suffering from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Being away from home during this time caused Wilson to miss many special occasions with his family. He was not there for the birth of some of his children, anniversaries or even the first games for his childrens’ sports teams. Also, Wilson said that he had not truly understood how the Army could take a mental toll on someone until he experienced it himself.
“With veterans who served in my community as youngsters back then, I always wondered how you can go into service perfectly fine but come out with mental issues,” he said. “Now I know. Now I am that guy.”
Wilson said he witnessed things during combat that he would not want his children to see. He said he believes that more needs to be done today for our veterans in this country, as he understands how many soldiers have suffered, or are currently still suffering, from mental and physical conditions. He explained how many of these soldiers do not have family members or friends available to help them, and potential resources such as the Veterans Affairs may not be giving them what they need. So, using his servant personality after his retirement from the military on May 1, 2017, Wilson said he knew that he wanted to give back to future soldiers, using his retirement gift from his children, a riding mower, to do so.
“They can’t afford lawn care, and that is why I take it upon myself to drive as far as I can with my old truck, that I call the ‘Green Machine,’ in order to get to our veterans,” Wilson said. “I call veterans ‘Very Important People,’ because they are.”
Wilson’s children bought their dad this mower figuring he could cut their grass, he said, as well as his own. However, after realizing that many of his neighbors received fines from the HOA for overgrown grass, he started cutting the grass of those who were unable to hire lawn care services free of charge. Wilson said he does not have the heart to make a living off people who cannot afford his work otherwise.
“Word got out that I was cutting grass for free, mostly for disabled veterans,” he said. “I remember this sweet, God-fearing lady who called me and asked if I would cut her grass.”
Although this woman was not a disabled veteran, she nevertheless needed Wilson’s help. She was 83 years old and was also unable to afford lawn care services because of her income at the time.
“Right then and there I said, ‘Yes ma’am,’ so now I also cut senior citizens’ grass.”
Today, Wilson brings his business to communities beyond just Auburn-Opelika neighborhoods, such as Smiths Station, Columbus and Salem. He explained that as his clientele has increased, he may have to stop taking on new jobs as he works seven days a week all by himself.
Not only does he care for lawns, but this veteran also moves or puts together furniture for his customers. Also, he even stays after his jobs are finished with customers who want his company, although this puts him behind schedule for his next job, he said. He does six yards per day.
“My wife tells me to tell them I have to go, but I cannot,” Wilson said. “I just stay and listen, because one day, I will be in the same boat.”
Wilson has been running his lawn care business for four years and counting. He has made countless impacts not only for his country but also for his local neighbors. He currently lives in Smiths Station. To reach Wilson, please call 254-231- 2141.