COMMENATARY: A national strategy to prevent veteran suicide with deep roots in the Carolinas

by Jun 30, 2020OPINIONS




With COVID accelerating veteran unemployment and economic uncertainty, a whole of government approach to tackling veteran suicide inclusive of private industry and academia is needed now more than ever. On Wednesday, Veterans Administration Secretary Robert Wilkie joined President Trump to reveal the action plan (“Road Map”) of a fresh multi-agency collaborative called PREVENTS. While the secretary’s ties to North Carolina are common knowledge, a veteran himself who grew up in Fayetteville where his father served, what is less well known is that many of the practices and strategies being deployed nationally by the PREVENTS taskforce that Secretary Wilkie leads were pioneered in North Carolina.

Grassroots collaboratives have been a way of life in self-reliant mountain communities and coastal base towns for decades. More recently, federally guided training efforts such as the Mayor’s Challenge and then later the Governor’s Challenge to prevent Veteran Suicide (strongly supported by Governor Cooper), began a coached process of interagency collaboration, planning and problem solving.  But before those initiatives took hold, North Carolina was already pioneering a digitally enabled coordinated care network for veterans and their families called NCServes that has addressed over 35,000 complex needs for veterans and their families that are typically in the Social & Community services realm outside of VA care. The NCServes hub and spoke model of high-touch and high-tech care coordination has been such a game changer that states from Texas to Rhode Island have sought to replicate it.

Public Private Partnerships, led by support from the Walmart Foundation and local funding through organizations such as Leon Levine and Evergreen Foundations respectfully, created these coordinated care networks. There are now four Networks across the state, including Jacksonville, Raleigh, Charlotte and one right here in Asheville.  Today, the Department of Health and Human services has assumed the mantle of command in growing and guiding these efforts to better connect over 300 community providers and state and county agencies with those in need. They are working closely with community partners such as the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry (ABCCM) and their growing portfolio of Veteran Services of the Carolinas, in order to connect thousands of North Carolina veterans and their families to the wrap-around care and service that they have earned.

The team at ABCCM’s Veteran Services of the Carolinas has steadily worked to become the largest US Department of Labor supported Veterans program in the Nation. This collaborative focus on ending homelessness and suicide through workforce development has proven so successful that it is integral to the new national PREVENTS framework. The ABCCM Veterans Services team maintains a 90 percent success rate in placing Homeless Veterans; additionally 90% of these Veterans are still stably housed 18 months after exit and have found self-sufficiency through employment and mental health support systems.

Operating in 49 of the 100 counties in North Carolina, ABCCM’s Veterans team work closely with other community collaboratives from the mountains to the sea, including with Federal partners such as VA and DoD Installations. Ft. Bragg and Camp Lejeune are now connected to more than 300 local partners ranging mental health care professionals like the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic in Fayetteville and transitional housing programs such as the Veterans Restoration Quarters in Asheville.

As Secretary Wilkie and the PREVENTS team seek to “best to equip State and local governments, engage faith-based communities” and promote community-based models that are effectively implementing evidence-informed mental health and suicide prevention programs across the country”, the model of true servant leadership has become more apparent. There could be no finer or more inclusive exemplar of these plans in action of Pastoral Leadership with the team at ABCCM and Veterans Services of the Carolinas.

Brandon Wilson and Ilario Pantano are both former U.S. Marines and Iraq War veterans. Brandon is the director of The Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry’s Veteran Services of the Carolinas. Ilario was the former North Carolina State Director for Veterans Affairs and is now a senior director with Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF).