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Blake Bourne: Let’s make NC into most veteran-friendly state in country

By Blake Bourne

N0rth Carolina, rightfully so, advertises itself as the most military-friendly state.

We are home to Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne; Camp LeJeune, the largest Marine Corps Base on the East Coast; and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, a major Air Combat Command center. What we often overlook, in touting our support for the military, is that the active duty soldiers who serve here in North Carolina become veterans when they retire or complete their term of service.

As the executive director of Veterans Bridge Home, a nonprofit focused on assisting active duty servicemembers transition to civilian life, I propose a new challenge to the people of North Carolina — let’s be the most veteran-friendly state, too.

Becoming the most veteran friendly state starts in Rowan County, home of the W.G. “Bill” Hefner VA Medical Center. The 484-bed medical center is one of the largest VA medical facilities in the state and is recognized as one of the largest employers in Rowan County.

However, as highlighted by recent media reports, when it comes to providing the best service and care for veterans, the Salisbury VA Medical Center can’t do it alone. One of the most important parts of supporting veterans, whether they’ve recently transitioned from active duty or have been civilians for years, is to get them connected with their community.

Earlier this month, the VA released its proposed rules for its new veteran community care program, as mandated by the MISSION Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by the President in June 2018.  Although the primary focus of these proposed rules is on when veterans can access non-VA care, it is important to realize that “community care” is something that goes well beyond health care.

By definition, a community is “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.”

At Veterans Bridge Home, our motto is “a stronger community. One veteran a time.”

The common characteristic that we all share here in North Carolina, whether we are veterans or not, is that we are human, and have a natural inclination toward ensuring the well-being of ourselves and others in our community.  Often that path to well-being goes beyond medical appointments.

For example, we see veterans who appear depressed. Although the mainstream media would lead to you believe that these veterans are suffering from a debilitating form of post-traumatic stress disorder, oftentimes, this is not the case. To the contrary, the veteran may be depressed because he or she had difficulty finding a job, a place to live or connecting with a new social circle.

Factors such as employment and housing are often referred to as the social determinants of health — cultural conditions that impact health care outcomes. Understanding the role of social determinants on the veteran population at home are critical for us in supplementing the important work done at the Salisbury VA Medical Center but also ensuring that we have a thriving community of veterans and non-veterans alike.

As veterans transition from active duty to civilian status, our society must also transition from the media stereotype of veteran as victim to veterans as important leaders in our communities. We can accomplish this by engaging community partners such as those who provide employment counseling, access to affordable housing, family services and health care providers.

Organizations such as Patriots Path, Rowan County Veteran Service Officers, and Team RWB are leading the way at the local level.

In a recent study, North Carolina ranked 21st on a list of states that are best for military retirees, despite having the eighth-highest population of veterans in the nation. We can and must do better. The way to do it is to place greater emphasis on organizing our community resources around veterans.

Becoming the nation’s most veteran-friendly state won’t be easy. Given the valuable community resources we have, I think we are certainly up for the challenge.

Blake Bourne is an Army veteran and  executive director of Veterans Bridge Home, a nonprofit that bridges the gap between veterans and their communities in counties across North Carolina, including Rowan.

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