NC veterans surge brings possibilities, challenges - WRBL

NC veterans surge brings possibilities, challenges

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North Carolina's latest effort to help those moving off the state's military installations and onto main streets begins this week after the pomp and circumstance of Veterans Day fade.

The state's first veterans' treatment court will gavel Wednesday in Harnett County — a pilot project designed to help veterans with substance abuse or mental health problems now in trouble with the law turn their lives around. Local ex-soldiers and airmen convicted of misdemeanors and low-level felonies and who qualify for and complete the program could see sentences reduced or charges dismissed.

"We must seize the opportunity to intervene in their lives and work together to make them whole again," Harnett Clerk of Superior Court and project director Marsha Johnson said. She spoke last week at the court's opening ceremony, attended by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

The court has been paid for a year by a $67,000 grant from the Governor's Crime Commission. It is one of several initiatives that elected officials, educators and economic developers are looking at with the military in mind.

The state, often labeled the most military-friendly in the country, is balancing the possibilities and obligations with an expected spike in members leaving the service in coming years as wars wind down. About 770,000 military veterans already live in North Carolina. Some new veterans are struggling from combat trauma and injuries, the governor said.

"We shouldn't do it to get a designation. We should do it because it's the right thing," McCrory said in an interview, adding that "it's both a challenge but also an opportunity for veterans coming back home."

Helping the state's military population and veterans has been a priority for governors and legislators since at least the 2001 terror attacks. Laws passed with this community in mind usually garner strong bipartisan support, reflecting positive feelings for the military's connections to the state, said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserve who once served in Afghanistan.

Compared with the otherwise partisan environment in Raleigh, "there's just much more agreement on how we can approach issues on veterans and the military community," Martin said.

In recent years, the legislature has passed laws giving property tax breaks to disabled veterans and their surviving spouses, helping protect veterans from identity theft by restricting the release of discharge documents, and waiving certain commercial driver's license requirements for veterans based on their military experience.

A recent study commissioned by the state Department of Commerce calculated that the military supports about 10 percent of the state's economy, supporting 540,000 jobs. There are seven military installations in North Carolina and 109,000 active duty personnel statewide.

The report said the drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and realigned troop levels are bringing a surge in active-duty military departures.

While an average of 8,000 military personnel with North Carolina addresses left active duty annually from 2007 to 2012, the number is to exceed 11,000 this year and reach about 22,000 in both 2015 and 2016 before falling, the report said. About 80 percent of the separating service members through 2018 will be age 30 or younger.

Keeping this current and growing employment pool of veterans within North Carolina — well-trained, mature and ready to work — is attractive for both employers and state officials.

"They are your workforce to grow existing business and attract new businesses," said Scott Dorney, executive director of the North Carolina Military Business Center in Fayetteville. That group is seeking in part to ease the transition of new veterans to civilian employment.

Connecting veterans with companies that need their skills remains a challenge, although community colleges and the center are working with military base transition offices to provide the link. Dorney talks about a Charlotte-based company that wants to hire 300 veterans for its air-freight business because they are more likely to meet federal security standards to pick up packages at airports.

"We want as many veterans who are returning to make North Carolina their home forever," McCrory said last week.

Ricky Carleton of Apex, who served two tours in Iraq before leaving the Marine Corps in 2009, says veterans like him need easier and centralized access to information about their options. Carleton, 28, said while he's fortunate to be working part-time with an information technology company while attending Wake Technical Community College, other student veterans aren't getting experience in their field.

Once the economic picture improves, General Assembly members could grapple with whether it makes sense to make retiree benefits exempt from state income tax. Right now the pension checks of veterans with five years of service before 1989 are exempt.

Martin said legislators should consider now other veteran-friendly policies, including making it easier for families of new veterans to obtain in-state college tuition. If the Harnett County pilot is successful, McCrory wants the legislature to pay for veterans' treatment courts in every region where a veterans' hospital stands.

Martin said he's worried the phase-out of broad American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan could mean veterans and military issues return to the back burner as the wars drift from front pages and TV newscasts.

"We really have a limited window to make some progress," Martin said.

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