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Carroll County veteran, known on duty for winning hearts and minds overseas, is awarded a new car

Paul Hughes was a tank gunner, but serving as a specialist in the Army in Kirkuk, in Northern Iraq, he was hardly limited to sitting in an armored vehicle all day.

“I actually learned to speak Kurdish a little bit over there,” he said. “I would [BS] with them, and they liked me.”

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The Kurds liked Hughes so much, they began to ask for him by name, he said. And soon, so did his commanding officer.

“He said, ‘How come every time I go to one of these meetings with these high-ranking Iraqis they’re always like, ‘Hughes? Where Hughes?’ ”

When Hughes let his commanding officer know he had built a rapport with the locals, he was commended for improving his unit’s “security situation.”

“You get back from Iraq the first thing everyone asks you is, ‘Did you kill anybody?’ I’m like, no, actually I got a medal for making friends,” Hughs said. “But that was the mission though, hearts and minds.”

Now back in civilian life — Hughes was active duty from 2008 into 2011, then served five years in the National Guard — he is still winning hearts and minds, but he’s not riding around in a tank. In fact, for the past year, he had no wheels at all — that’s why he found himself sitting in the office of Tom Mudgett of Mudgett’s Autobody on Thursday, ready to receive a set of keys.

For the second year in a row, Mudgett is donating a car to a veteran who needs one to get to work. In Hughes’ case, it’s a silver 2008 Toyota Camry.

“It’s been a handful. I got the car three years ago from Copart,” Mudgett said. “I got the car here — of course it wouldn’t run.”

Koons Toyota donated work on the car’s engine to keep it from burning oil, while Auto Correct Car Care donated a new antilock brake module and the work to install it, according to Mudgett.

“He did the work, I said, ‘What do I owe you?’ he said ‘Get out of here,’ ” Mudgett said.

Mudgett did some paint work, straightened out an issue with the vehicle’s title and finally, after three years, was ready to pass it on to a veteran. Hughes was that veteran.

“This changes everything. I can get a better job now,” Hughes said, admiring the car in the Mudgett’s Autobody parking lot. He has been working at Jiffy Lube in Westminster.

“It was basically right across the street, so I started working there, but the pay is not cutting it,” Hughes said. “Now I’ll be able to get a job anywhere.”

And that was the goal of Charles Wheatley III, the man who connected Hughes and Mudgett and who is the co-director of the Westminster nonprofit Learning Institute for Excellence.

“We started out helping kids with learning problems, and now we have expanded it,” Wheatley said. “I said, we ought to start doing some local things here for local veterans, so that everybody can know what they’ve done.”

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Wheatley is a big believer in the right to a job.

“Let me make some money and I can solve a lot of my problems that I would otherwise have to ask somebody else for help with,” he said.

And while Wheatley was looking for veterans to help, so was Mudgett, who was looking for a way to give back to those who have served.

“To me, a lot of people in the military are underappreciated in my eyes,” he said. “They give a lot. Some of them go over there and don’t come home.”

Wheatley and Mudgett together delivered their first free vehicle to a veteran in July 2018, and they plan to donate another in 2020, with Mudgett already getting a third vehicle ready to go.

In the meantime, Hughes, appreciative of the opportunity, is already planning his next moves, now that he has wheels. He’s still thinking hearts and minds.

“I might just use my GI Bill and go back to school,” he said. “I want to do business management, but I also like helping people. People relate to me, I get along with people quick — I make friends quick. I feel like I could be a counselor.”

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