Although he hung up his uniform nearly a decade ago, Maj. Gen. (Ret.) James E. Donald never stopped serving our country. He no longer wears his combat boots or dog tags, but he continues to serve as a leading voice to lift our service members and military families up, improve our communities and build better futures for our veteran warriors.
At first glance, General Donald, a native of Jackson, Miss., has an extensive leadership background and an inspiring number of achievements. With a military career of more than 33 years, he served as Task Force Commander for the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” during the Gulf War; Deputy Commanding General for the U.S. Army, Pacific; and Deputy Chief of Staff, G1 until his retirement in 2003.
Upon retirement, Governor Sonny Perdue appointed General Donald as Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections, and later to a seven-year term on the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles which included two terms as Chairman, where he continues to serve today. He also serves as President of the Georgia Chapter of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) and on the Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee (GMACC), which represents all services of the military.
Approachable, humble, and upbeat, General Donald appeared to forget all about his laundry list of achievements as he sat down for an interview to provide insight on his advocacy work for veterans. His focus is now on what he refers to as “the next great battle” – that of not leaving fellow comrades behind.
As President of AUSA, General Donald explained that the purpose of the Association is to provide a voice for Soldiers, Veterans and family members, and to serve as a portal that connects veterans to civilian services and opportunities. He confirms that the next big battle we face as a nation is to ensure that our veterans have access to available support services that aid in their successful re-entry into the community, and has personally committed to the fight of leaving no veteran behind.
“No programs are more important to us than attacking and eliminating the obstacles that confront our returning Veterans,” said General Donald.
Over the next couple years, more than 60,000 Georgia veterans are expected to return home, and despite all they have accomplished, there are many challenges and evolving threats looming on the horizon against them. These threats include high suicide and unemployment rates, silent wounds from Post-Traumatic Stress Injuries (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), and homelessness. General Donald travels the state to raise awareness of the myriad of issues faced by our veterans, reduce the stigma of PTSD and address employment issues.
“You’re thrust back into the community and you have to deal with a totally different culture,” said General Donald of veterans transitioning back into civilian society. “But the military experience is unique. One of the great challenges we have is interpreting the skills, training and education of Soldiers so that civilian employers can identify those not-so-obvious qualifications and understand the true value of these men and women.”
The top issues for veterans today are to find jobs and housing. “We have learned that there are two important factors to transitioning people; meaningful jobs and a suitable place to stay,” he said.
To address these concerns, General Donald and AUSA are collaborating with public and private organizations that provide services, professional opportunities and public support of veterans, to advocate for his military re-entry model, which is a strategic plan to transition soldiers successfully back into the community with a certificate of completion. His mission is to create an accessible network of existing veteran organizations that provide voluntary mentorship to veterans, including career profiles, coaching on different areas of life, and health assessments.
“One of the things we have to do is help them [veterans] avoid falling through the crack,” said General Donald. “We want to make sure that we have somebody, representatives in these various organizations, to take them under their mentorship. There are all types of organizations out there designed to help veterans, but a lot of times they do not know where to go.”
As an advocate, General Donald supports Governor Nathan Deal and state legislators’ efforts to find funding and pass laws to assist veterans and their families. Two recent examples include passage of the Military Child Education Compact Bill and HB 188, which are designed to address unique challenges faced by military children attending Georgia schools and to fast track job opportunities for veterans in fields that were previously encumbered by state licensing requirements. His efforts also include forming partnerships with state agencies and local businesses to host job fairs for veterans in various cities throughout the state, and to champion new education initiatives and vocational rehabilitation programs specifically for veterans.
General Donald’s extensive advocacy work and fierce dedication to support veterans is no mere accident. “Every chance I get, I am going to be an advocate for the veterans,” General Donald said. “I spent 33-and-a-half years in the Army. You just can’t walk away from that career without having an emotional attachment to those same men and women.”
Through his work on behalf of AUSA and GMACC, General Donald is able to personally maintain his involvement in the military by promoting the well-being and opportunities for veterans and by simply letting them know that people really care about them. “The most gratifying part of my job is to be able to be close with the soldiers,” General Donald said, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Henry V; “For ‘he’ today that sheds blood with me shall be my brother…!”