N.C. must take steps to remain ‘military friendly’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 20, 2013

North Carolina’s new state government will not be short of agenda items as officials get down to work. Vying for priority will be one especially well-deserving — and decidedly nonpartisan — issue: how to continue earning our claim to being the most military-friendly state.
A number of pragmatic steps are readily available. They blend the themes of supporting our service members, being economically dynamic and adapting to strategic change.
A central part of the Pentagon’s strategy is reducing the Army by 80,000 soldiers and the Marine Corps by 20,000 Marines. North Carolina is home to major installations for both services — the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune and the Army’s Fort Bragg — and service members from each will be part of this drawdown.
That is especially significant for our Marines. Another part of the strategy is a pivot to the Pacific, leaving East Coast units to contribute disproportionately to the 20,000 Marine cut.

Newly separated service members will surge into civilian life looking for education. A 2011 amendment to the GI Bill changed how the tuition benefit is calculated, though, and the UNC system now faces a lawsuit charging that this revision has led it to bilk some service members out of cheaper in-state tuition. But the real problem has to do with how in-state residency is determined.
A top priority of state government should be granting in-state rates to service veterans living in North Carolina, irrespective of where their permanent residency lies. GI Bill benefits then will cover their remaining costs.
Employment is an equal concern for these personnel, as well as for our economic well-being. State government took an important step in July by passing a law that helps service members gain civilian job licenses based on their military specialties. And UNC-Chapel Hill, Fort Bragg’s Army Special Operations Command and Blue Cross Blue Shield similarly announced in December they will invest in a Master’s program meant to help elite Army medics transition into the physicians’ assistant field.
Still, our capacity to help service members through this transition is an issue. State government needs to implement much larger-scale programs, especially by helping our community college system develop curricula that can rapidly round out military training. Building on the skills this generation of service members already have will allow them to contribute to the civilian economy as quickly as possible.
Allowing service members to put their skills to work is the easier part of economic dynamism. It won’t be enough — the Pentagon’s strategy for reducing the ground forces means state government will have to be creative in how it competes.
Service members who leave the force often find themselves in Eastern North Carolina communities in which 50 percent to 75 percent of local income comes from military wages. State government can manage this dependency by improving the region’s attractiveness to the Pentagon, for instance by investing in road, air, and broadband infrastructure.
But it also needs to reduce that dependency. Adapting to a strategy with fewer ground forces and more focus on the Pacific will require our whole state to help these communities become more economically dynamic.

At the same time, this strategy gives North Carolina opportunities to grow. One area is intelligence, which comes with the need to harness “Big Data.” Worldwide satellite reconnaissance and thousands upon thousands of drones generate more inputs than any number of people could ever hope to analyze. Firms like Cary-based SAS specialize in automating just this sort of work and in doing so create an environment for related, niche businesses to grow.
Another area of opportunity is the social sciences. From the ambassadors North Carolina educates to the Army and Marine Corps special operators we host, national security professionals increasingly engage with the general public overseas. No one is better positioned to prepare them for those interactions than our network of economists, historians, anthropologists and political scientists. State government should nurture our universities to become a hub for this sort of professional services.
All of these opportunities relate to supporting our service members, adapting to strategic change and being economically dynamic. At the very core is a strong National Guard and Reserve. Many of the Pentagon’s strategic choices depend on this standby force, one that has been fine-tuned over the past decade. Yet military services like the Air Force have made budget proposals that distinctly favor the active duty. Gov. Pat McCrory and the General Assembly can underwrite U.S. strategy by championing North Carolina’s National Guard and Reserve. The Guard will more than earn that support by providing our state with help recovering when disaster strikes.
The “most military-friendly state” is an earned title. This list could easily go on, and everything on it could garner bipartisan support. Many items need quick attention. If McCrory and the General Assembly can build momentum on them, they’ll be off to a remarkably good start.

Matthew Leatherman is a freelance contributor on the state-level impact of defense policies and spending. This article originally appeared in the News & Observer of Raleigh.