CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mike Runyon was homeless and sleeping under Charleston's Spring Street Bridge not long before he went to work for the West Virginia National Guard's tire maintenance facility in Kanawha City.
"When I got out of the military, I was drinking and doing a lot of bouncing from job to job," the 47-year-old Navy veteran said.
Friends and contacts with the National Guard got him back on track, and offered Runyon a job tearing down and reassembling expensive wheel and tire assemblies for the U.S. Army.
"I was six weeks sober when I went to work here," Runyon said. "I've been sober for a year."
Runyon is one of 19 employees at the West Virginia National Maintenance Program tire facility, located in a large warehouse in Kanawha City. There, workers take apart complicated wheel assemblies for more than a dozen types of military vehicles, clean them up, install new tires and ship them back out.
Lt. Col. Joe Peal, in charge of logistics for the West Virginia Army National Guard, said the military usually buys entire wheel assemblies for its myriad vehicles. By reusing the old wheels and installing new tires, the Kanawha City facility can save the Army millions of dollars a year.
Peal said the National Guard started refurbishing tires in Eleanor in 2009, but outgrew the facility. The Kanawha City tire center opened last year, and has already rebuilt more than 10,000 wheel assemblies.
Wheels that come into the facility are first sorted, and the tires removed. Tires that hold air are sent to a facility in North Carolina to be reused or recapped, while tires that are gouged, torn or otherwise damaged are sent to West Virginia Tire Disposal to be recycled into things like playground mulch. Peal said no rubber from the Kanawha City facility ends up in a landfill.
He said National Guard members in Mason County first began refurbishing wheels on their own Humvees. Now, the West Virginia National Guard is the biggest supplier of rebuilt Humvee tires in the whole country.
"If there's a Humvee tire, there's a good chance that West Virginia built it," he said.
Peal said the National Guard has to buy new tires, bolts and other parts to refurbish the wheels that come into the Kanawha City facility. But even with material costs, it's cheaper for the Army to buy rebuilt wheels than new ones. Depending on the type of tire, wheels rebuilt in Kanawha City save the federal government anywhere from a few hundred dollars each to as much as $1,700 per wheel.
The Kanawha City facility stays fairly busy. This week, workers were preparing an order of 356 Humvee tires for shipment, carefully wrapping pallets of four tires each in a protective layer of plastic film. In another part of the warehouse, workers were installing new inner rubber discs into the tires, which are designed to run even when flat.
The Kanawha City tire center is part of a statewide National Guard initiative to create jobs for West Virginians, with preference given to active and retired Guard members and retired military personnel. Wages at Kanawha City start at $19 an hour.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin just announced the opening of a similar facility in McDowell County to refurbish the large inflatable tents the military is using in Iraq and Afghanistan. That facility will employ 15.
Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, said the state's Guard leadership has tried to look hard at the federal budget for ways to bring jobs to the state. If they can save the military money and put West Virginians to work, all the better.
"We're trying to create these opportunities for men and women to live here and raise their families, and meet a national need," Hoyer said. "We can create a cost savings for the U.S. government while at the same time creating jobs for West Virginians.
"Last fiscal year, we saved the Department of the Army $27 million, and we created almost 30 jobs in the state of West Virginia."
Reach Rusty Marks at email@example.com or 304-348-1215.