Nearly 800,000 military veterans call North Carolina home, yet a new report found that the state lacks a coordinated strategy to support them.
The report from the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division calls on state lawmakers to create a task force for veterans, active service members and their families, then direct the group to draft and implement a five-year strategic plan.
It also recommends that the legislature establish an oversight committee to monitor progress on the plan. Legislators recently asked the Program Evaluation Division to draft legislation for consideration in the 2015-16 legislative session, which begins in January.
The PED report may be the first published inventory of about two dozen state programs that serve veterans and their families in North Carolina. The state’s assistant secretary for Veterans Affairs, Ilario Pantano, deemed it “truly shocking” that such an inventory hadn’t been compiled before in a state with so many veterans and such a strong military presence.
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“Think about that,” Pantano told a legislative committee last week. “We’ve been at war for 13 years, and only this legislature now are we really focusing on veterans services and veterans affairs.”
That might be an exaggeration, as past administrations and Gov. Pat McCrory have worked on veterans’ issues. But Pantano has a point about what he called the “disjointed universe” of veterans services. In other words, 10 state agencies provide services to veterans, but many of them operate independently and aren’t coordinated with the others. He also expressed a need to increase awareness among veterans about available services.
The report comes on the heels of Executive Order 49, which McCrory signed earlier this year. It created a veterans working group with a goal of “making North Carolina the state of choice for veterans” in part by fostering collaboration between the entities that provide services. So perhaps the report’s recommendations already are being acted upon in some fashion.
Josh Ellis, a McCrory spokesman, said the working group has met six times and that a focus has been on communication and outreach efforts to ensure veterans know what services are out there. He said to expect announcements on that front in coming weeks.
The PED report acknowledged the existence of the governor’s working group, but noted that the lack of legislative oversight means that its efforts may not align with budget priorities of the General Assembly. In other words, they may not get funded.
In the 2013-14 fiscal year, the report found, state agencies, community colleges and the university system operated 23 veterans programs. Of those, 11 programs spent nearly $54 million on services, focusing on areas such as educational support, financial assistance, physical and behavioral health, emotional well-being and workforce development. N.C. veterans also get discounts on tickets to state attractions and reduced fees for fishing and hunting licenses, among other perks.
The report didn’t get into whether the programs are successful at treating veterans’ emotional and physical scars, helping them find jobs or otherwise steering them toward productive, healthy lives. But it did find that many programs don’t track outcomes, meaning it’s difficult to know whether they’re successful.
Pantano pointed out that defense is second-largest industry in North Carolina behind agriculture. He also said the state has the third largest active military presence in the country and is the ninth most populous state for veterans.
“We don’t retain our veterans,” Pantano said. “Historically, we have not been as veteran friendly as we have been military friendly.”
Maybe that’s about to change.
Patrick Gannon is the editor of the NC Insider news service.