A lot has happened to Andrew McKinney that he never imagined. He saw the world after he joined the U.S. Army. He was homeless and lived in his car for several months. He experienced a bureaucratic system that failed him and discriminated against him. And, today, he shares his story of perseverance and success with students of all ages.

He graduated from Madison East High School in the late 1980s and was recruited to play basketball at Madison Area Technical College.

“The three things that I was supposed to do, in my mind, was play basketball, chase the girls and go to class,” said McKinney, a Town of Cottage Grove resident who now serves as president of the Monona Grove School Board. “I succeeded at the first two, so I failed out the first semester. I had no really good direction, no real male role models.”

He was living with his mother and three siblings on the west side of Madison. He was working, partying and getting home late at night.

“But then my mother said, ‘You’re not going to be in here working these stupid jobs and doing nothing for yourself. You need to talk to your uncles and go to the military,’” he said.

His uncles had served in the Army, and he discovered his great-grandfather, Oliver Law, was the first Black to lead a brigade in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

“He (my uncle) said, ‘Why don’t you go into the Army, go active duty, get yourself a foundation, see the world, and then, if you want to get out, you get out, or you make it a career,’” McKinney said.

Enlisting at age 19

At 19, he enlisted in September 1988 and was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training.

He was classified as a supply specialist and was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland when the Gulf War began. His unit helped prepare other units and soldiers for their time overseas. Later, he spent time at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. McKinney also was in Germany and then a year in South Korea.

Stationed about 12 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), he was part of an engineering unit that built bridges and provided supplies to units in training. He spent about six of his 12 months there in the field.

“We got shot at one time from North Korea,” McKinney said. “They call in friendly fire. We were told, when standing our post, that we’re not supposed to make faces at the North Koreans, just stand your ground. Some young, white guy from Alabama decided that he was going to call them names and stuff, and they started shooting at us, just for warning. I survived a couple drive-by shootings in Gary (Indiana); there’s nothing friendly about that.”

McKinney would return to the United States and spend time in Maryland and North Carolina before being promoted to a driver for a colonel at Aberdeen Proving Ground. He also served as a driver for various VIPs who visited.

He said the best part of this job was being exempt from a lot of extra duties, such as a weekend shift to pick up new recruits arriving at the base.

McKinney was the 1987 Wisconsin high jump champion (6 feet, 8 inches) and was part of the all-Army track team. The competed in amateur events around the nation.

“The greatest meet that I went to was the Modesto Relays in Modesto, California,” he said. “It was a pro-am meet, and I finally hit that 7-foot mark, but everybody else was high jumping 7-3.”

He remembered blushing when he first met Florence Griffith Joyner.

He also tried out for the all-Army basketball team and scrimmaged against Navy.

“That was when David Robinson played,” McKinney said. “I had the honor and privilege of him dunking on me.”

Wear and tear on his body, specifically his hip flexor muscle, ended his Army sports endeavors.

Army career comes to an end

He initially enlisted in the Army for four years and re-signed for another four. But in December 1994, he was medically separated from the military, partly due to his physical condition and a national decision to downsize the military.

“The military was really helping me and saving my life,” McKinney said. “I loved it. I felt comfortable. I met so many new friends and was able to go places, to travel, even in the United States. When I would come here to visit … when you start seeing some of your friends doing the same thing, and you say, ‘Wow, I actually escaped.’ I’m having a blast.”

He returned to Madison to live with his mother. He had married in the Army and was now going through a divorce. His wife and two children were living in Mississippi.

“No one was giving me the opportunity to get my own apartment, because I didn’t have a job,” he said.

His mother opted to return to Gary, Indiana, and McKinney took some of his savings and paid for an apartment for six months. Come Labor Day weekend, he didn’t have enough money to keep it.

“I was out on the streets, homeless. I had bought a car from an auction for $500, and I was sleeping in it. I lived in my car,” McKinney said. “I used to take my showers at the gas station … right across from the Pine Cone. To eat, I was working at Ponderosa as a waiter.”

For three months, he lived in his car until a friend’s brother needed a roommate. When the lease ended in June 1996, the roommate moved on, and McKinney was back in his car. A few months later, he was staying with a cousin when he started to get help from the Veterans Administration.

“I had a lot of anger with the policies that were really bad for men, especially for Black men. They were treating Black men horrible. They treated my (soon-to-be ex-wife) like a queen. They were attacking me,” he said. “It was frustrating. Here I am trying to do the right thing. It was really, really frustrating. Trying to get the help, and the help wasn’t there.

“I didn’t do drugs, so I wasn’t strung out on drugs. I wasn’t no alcoholic. I wasn’t robbing nobody, I wasn’t stealing. I believed in the system, but the system was failing me. It was discriminating big time.”

Through hard work and perseverance, he landed a job at American Family Insurance and was there for nearly 10 years. He then decided to pursue a career in education.

Today, he is remarried, has a few more children and works as the site coordinator at C.H. Bird Elementary School in Sun Prairie.

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