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Once-suicidal man becomes veterans' lifeline

  • Story Highlights
  • Lynn Hughes fights to help uninsured veterans receive the benefits they're entitled to
  • The Vietnam vet spends more than 60 hours a week assisting veterans for free
  • Hughes has been credited with preventing at least two suicides
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open at CNN.com/Heroes
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ROCKY MOUNT, North Carolina (CNN) -- Like for many Americans, Memorial Day for Lynn Hughes is about giving back to veterans. The 61-year-old will be placing flags on the graves of fallen soldiers at Rocky Mount Memorial Park gardens.

Lynn Hughes' organization has helped more than 650 veterans receive the benefits due to them.

Lynn Hughes' organization has helped more than 650 veterans receive the benefits due to them.

What sets Hughes apart: He volunteers for veterans almost every other day of the year, too.

Hughes, a Vietnam veteran himself, fights to help uninsured veterans receive the benefits they're entitled to.

"The veterans just don't know what to do; they don't know where to go," Hughes said. "If we don't give them the information that they need so they can get help, they won't get help."

It's an experience Hughes understands firsthand.

Wounded twice during two tours of duty, Hughes was awarded two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars. But despite his medals, he fought for six years to get disability compensation because his service records were lost.

Without the proper documentation, he could not receive assistance and was forced to try to piece together his records. His wife, Robin, kept the family afloat as a nurse while Hughes, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, struggled to keep a job.

"I limped around for a long time, depressed," Hughes said. "I felt guilty and wanted to kill myself."

After a grueling process, his records were reconstructed, and he finally got the help he needed. Now he uses what he learned from that experience to help other veterans navigate the bureaucracy through his Eastern North Carolina Veterans Development Corp.

Since 2003, his organization has helped more than 650 veterans tackle a complicated system.

"The veterans who come to see us really don't know how the process starts. They kind of fall in between the cracks. Most of them deserve the benefits that they are to get," Hughes said. Video Watch as Hughes explains why he fights for veterans »

He and his wife, who are both on disability, spend more than 60 hours a week assisting veterans for free.

"We give out a lot more than we bring in," Hughes said.

Although most of their work involves helping them complete the necessary paperwork for their benefits, Hughes often drives veterans to VA centers for medical care. In addition, he has assisted with benefits appeals, helped spouses with funeral arrangements and paid mortgages to keep vets from losing their homes.

He has been credited with preventing at least two suicides.

Hughes, recognized in 2007 as a CNN Heroes honoree, continues to raise awareness of homelessness in the veteran community.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about one in three homeless adults in the country has served in the armed forces; current population estimates suggest that more than 150,000 male and female veterans are homeless on any given night.

"It's getting worse," Hughes said. "We're putting in more hours now more than ever because of the increase."

"We don't turn anyone away," he said.

Hughes visits schools, churches, veterans' organizations -- such as Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars -- and other functions to speak about patriotism and veterans issues; he also spends countless hours making and receiving calls.

For five years, he hosted a TV show called "Veteran's Corner" that aired weekly on WHIG, a local channel in Rocky Mount. The show went off the air this year, but he was able to reach thousands of viewers during its run. It featured a number of people who had helpful information regarding veterans' benefits, including members of Congress and veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

He also took calls on the show, including one from a veteran threatening suicide.

"I said, 'Don't do this. This is not a way out,' " Hughes recalled.

He talked to the man and later picked him up in his truck. He drove the other veteran 60 miles to a suicide prevention center.

Today, the man credits Hughes with saving his life.

"He told me, 'I would have killed myself if it weren't for you,' " Hughes said.

To Hughes, all of his work is just his way of giving back; he credits his own life to a friend who died to save him in Vietnam.

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"Maybe that's why God let me live ... because he had this in mind for me. He wants me to fight the fight."

Want to get involved? Check out Eastern North Carolina Veterans Development Corp. and see how to help.

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