BRUNSWICK COUNTY –– A new house bill is expected to improve encounters between law enforcement and struggling veterans in Brunswick and five other North Carolina counties with large retired military populations.
Sponsored by Rep. Charlie Miller, the “No Veteran Left Behind” bill would fund a pilot program to train emergency personnel on confronting veterans struggling with substance abuse or mental illness. The program is intended to reduce “unnecessary criminalization” and “extended incarceration,” according to the bill.
If passed, House Bill 370 would appropriate $500,000 to the Charlotte-based nonprofit The Independence Fund to oversee the program. Founded in 2007, The Independence Fund exists to serve veterans who return from combat wounded – both physically and mentally.
“Our veterans write a blank check payable to the United States of America for the amount of up to and including their lives. They go to hell and back for us,” said Sarah Verardo, CEO of The Independence Fund. “Some come home with catastrophic physical injuries, and some come home completely changed but in a way that you can’t see to the eye.”
The Independence Fund operates similarly to a disaster relief organization. It meets veterans where they are, “be it at their hospital bedside, sometimes, sadly, at a jail cell,” Verardo said.
It also aids family members of veterans who die by suicide, helping them navigate the death benefits and answering tough questions.
“We just believe in being there every step of the way,” Verardo added.
Throughout his career at the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, Miller said he has encountered many veterans, and even fellow officers, who suffer from PTSD. Sworn into his State House seat in January, Miller said he connected with The Independence Fund and Verardo early into his time in Raleigh.
“They help veterans with all kinds of issues,” Miller said. “I’ve had four veterans in our district – a couple of them in New Hanover and two in Brunswick [helped by the Independence Fund]. She’s helped resolve problems that I would have never thought could get resolved.”
Per the bill, the organization would educate law enforcement on crisis intervention, suicide prevention and available resources from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The training is expected to teach first responders how to de-escalate critical situations.
“It helps us understand what they’ve been through,” said Miller, who also serves as chief deputy of the sheriff’s office. “They’ll come and help train us and get us where we need to be.”
The Independence Fund would also be tasked with assessing the participating counties’ responses to veterans in crises. It would develop a real-time report for each county that shows who was assisted, and which resources and referrals the military vets received.
The nonrecurring funds proposed for the 2021-2022 fiscal year would cover the cost of the pilot in Brunswick, Craven, Union and Wayne counties, as well as Onslow – home of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune — and Cumberland, home to Fort Bragg’s Army base.
Brunswick County, largely known as a retirement community, has a population of around 13,500 veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Currently The Independence Fund’s casework team is working with about a half-dozen veterans in the Brunswick County area. Although it operates nationally, the majority of its cases are in North Carolina.
Verardo said the nonprofit has worked on “dire” cases locally, which required more than just “one-time help.” The veterans were stabilized in state psychiatric care, then transitioned to the VA hospital. Later, the nonprofit ensured the veterans were enrolled in the benefits available to them through federal and state agencies and connected with nonprofits. The Independence Fund also provides emergency dollars itself when warranted, Verardo said.
House Bill 370 would allocate the first state funding of this kind to the nonprofit. Currently, the organization solely runs on donations from individuals and corporations.
Alongside Miller, the bill, introduced Mar. 23, is primarily sponsored by Republicans Rep. George Cleveland of Onslow County, Speaker of the House Tim Moore of Cleveland County, and House Majority Leader John Bell of Wayne County. It has garnered the support of more than 60 house representatives across party lines.
“Everything else that typically divides us – we all support our veterans,” Verardo said, “and everyone seems anxious to really be the life-saving difference for our heroes.”
Miller expects the bill to pass without issue and for the program to spread like “wildfire” across the state.
The National Suicide Prevention Veterans Crisis Line is 1-800-273-8255. Trained professionals are answering calls 24/7.
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