Charlotte-based nonprofit to lead training program on vets in crisis

"Gov. Roy Cooper signs House Bill 138, Adopt Wounded Heroes Day, a bill to honor those who sustained injuries while serving their country in the U.S. Armed Forces in this April 21, 2021, photo. Seen behind Cooper are elected officials (including Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, Speaker of the N.C. House Tim Moore and Majority Leader John Bell) and some of the wounded veterans (including Sgt. Michael Verardo, standing directly behind Cooper) whom the bill seeks to honor."

RALEIGH — While a lot of legislation gets caught up in partisan battles, two veteran-related bills (House Bill 138, Adopt Wounded Heroes Day; and House Bill 370, No Veteran Left Behind Act) have seen unanimous support. Behind both bills is Charlotte-based veteran-support nonprofit The Independence Fund, that is fighting to help those returning from military service with issues surrounding physical and mental health.

The first bill, Adopt Wounded Heroes Day, sailed through both chambers unanimously and was signed by Gov. Roy Cooper on April 21. According to the bill language, the act adopts “the 24th day of April of each year as Wounded Heroes Day in honor of Army Sgt. Michael Verardo.”

Verardo lives in Union County with his wife, Sarah, who is the CEO of The Independence Fund. After serving in the 82nd Airborne and being deployed to active combat, Verardo was severely injured in an attack from an IED (improvised explosive device). He lost his left leg, much of his left arm and has had countless surgeries to various parts of his body.

“We were very blessed to have unanimous, bipartisan support for Wounded Heroes Day and then roll right into No Veteran Left Behind,” Sam Johnson, executive vice president of the Independence Fund, told NSJ in an interview.

Johnson said legislators told him they hadn’t seen anything in decades sail that quickly that had money attached to it.

While no money was attached to the Wounded Heroes Day bill, No Veteran Left Behind, which is now in the Senate, has $1 million of nonrecurring funds attached for a Veterans Justice Intervention pilot program that trains law enforcement, first responders and others who may encounter veterans in crisis, on how best to deal with potentially explosive situations.

No Veteran Left Behind was passed unanimously by the House, and Johnson said he is not concerned about it passing the Senate. He said the only controversy he sees in the Senate surrounds whether to increase the funding.

“They’re looking at doing potentially a statewide thing, versus just a 10-county pilot,” Johnson said of the discussions in the Senate.

In the House version, the pilot program would cover 10 military-heavy counties, including those that host Army base Fort Bragg, Marine Corps installations Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Whether it is a 10-county pilot or a statewide program once it reaches the governor’s desk, Johnson said they are confident they can manage the program since they are a national-level organization.

He said the program would involve trainings “not only for law enforcement but other first responders and community stakeholders to ask, how do we interact with our veteran population?”

One example of something that will be in the training is how they identify a veteran. Johnson said first responders will be trained to ask, “Have you served?” rather than, “Are you a veteran?”

“A lot of veterans won’t identify as veterans, because they think a veteran is someone that served in combat, or combat wounded, or a Silver Star recipient, as opposed to, if you ask the simple question, ‘Have you ever served?’, many people will be inclined to say, ‘Yes, we have.’ Which will indicate to our first responders not that they need to be handled with kid gloves, but just differently than your normal run-of-the-mill case.”

Johnson said it’s also important for law enforcement to be trained to understand how sensitive cases are when dealing with a veteran who has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and substance abuse issues.

If there’s a veteran having a mental health crisis, he said, “don’t go in [blaring] lights and sirens. There are some little nuances with dealing with veterans.”

Johnson gave a couple examples of when this kind of training has made a big difference.

“One of the kids that works for me is, I like to say, a good case. He’d been in the Army, 82nd Airborne, probably six or seven years. Deployed four times in six years, I think.”

Johnson said this man was in Afghanistan, in what Johnson called “high-intensity conflict,” and when he came back, he was having marital problems, drinking a lot and living life recklessly.

“He got a DUI, and was on his way to a second DUI, when someone said, ‘Look, there’s something more going on than you just acting the fool,’” Johnson said. “He was able to be seen by a veteran treatment court, and they identified some of these issues. They worked on his substance abuse, and now he’s been clean for at least three years now and living a productive life. That could have turned out a lot differently if he got thrown back into the legal system here.”

Johnson said a big part of the issue is realizing the interrelated nature of PTSD and substance abuse for many veterans who are struggling to re-integrate to civilian life.

“What we find with our veterans is, they’re co-morbidities, especially with the PTSD and substance abuse. You have to treat them together; whereas, the VA’s philosophy is that they treat them two totally different ways.”

He mentioned an organization down in Texas, called Warrior’s Heart, that treats them together. The second case Johnson mentioned involved getting another struggling veteran, also from the 82 Airborne, down to Texas for this holistic treatment.

The man gathered up his firearms, told his wife goodbye and left their home in Cumberland County. Worried about his safety, she called the police, who, according to Johnson, were expecting a “death by cop” scenario. But when he was found in neighboring Nash County, one of the responding officers was a veteran and decided to take a different approach.

“They had a veteran on the police force who said, ‘Hey, let me just go out and talk to this guy, not with lights and sirens; just let me talk to him.’ So he went out and talked to him and realized he needed help. We were able to work through the VA to get him to a substance abuse center down in Texas, and now he’s doing just fantastic.”

Johnson said The Independence Fund is starting with North Carolina when pursuing legislation, because they are based in Charlotte, but they are already in talks with “Tennessee, Texas, Pennsylvania and potentially Rhode Island” as well to do the same in those states.

Johnson also said they started with North Carolina, because “We’re trying to make sure we truly are making North Carolina one of the most veteran-friendly states in America.”

He said with all the major military bases, including Fort Bragg, which is the largest in the world, N.C. is still only ninth in veteran population, only one place ahead of where the state ranks overall in population at 10th.

“And that’s what we’re trying to change; we’re trying to change that narrative as well,” he said. “North Carolina, you really want it to be not just lip service that it’s a veteran friendly state. We are trying to show that it is a veteran-friendly place. That was one the main purposes behind Wounded Heroes Day, being one of the first states to recognize wounded heroes.”

Lastly, Johnson wanted to make sure that people understand that veterans do not need this kind of legislation because they are “broken” or because they need special treatment.

“I think that narrative gets out a lot that, ‘Oh, you know, a veteran has PTSD and he’s broken.’ Listen, I have PTSD, and I have to deal with it, but I’m not broken, and neither are these veterans,” Johnson said. “We’re just doing this so we can get back the social connectedness for these veterans, and they can go on and be productive members of society.”