Thanking a veteran for his or her service to our country is nice, yes.  

But the needs of the veteran community across the country are more dire than a pleasantry and platitude: it is urgent, and we must put action behind gratitude.  

Thankfully, the state government of North Carolina has created true courses of action to serve veterans in our state by dedicating funds to programs that will save lives of these heroes among us. 

On Sept. 22, the Veterans Justice Initiative (VJI) program, developed by veterans service nonprofit the Independence Fund, received continued funding with the passage of the state’s annual budget. The resulting impact of the state’s ongoing commitment to the lifesaving power of VJI will be immeasurable. The program educates law enforcement agencies and first responders to the nuances and true scope of veterans’ mental health obstacles — and sadly, crises — after they return home from service.  

As we celebrate this important milestone, it’s critical for North Carolinians to know the stories behind the program. Veterans Justice Initiative is more than a program: it’s a tool that is changing lives. The Independence Fund created VJI as a tactical response to the desperate need for solutions to mental health crises plaguing post-combat. 

The suicide rate for veterans is roughly 57% higher than the general public. In fact, more veterans have died by suicide post-9/11 combat than died in combat during a two decades-long conflict in Afghanistan. It’s a staggering statistic that cannot be overstated..  

In late 2021, the wife of a veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) called Sarah Verardo, CEO of the Independence Fund. The veteran was suffering from a mental health crisis and also in possession of a firearm. His wife was worried about his safety and the safety of others around him but was hesitant to contact law enforcement. 

Sarah, the primary caregiver to a post-9/11 veteran whose unit sustained unspeakable injuries in combat and has endured incredible losses by suicide since, understood the gravity of the situation and immediately stepped into action. She called local law enforcement in their county and spoke to a deputy who met her with callousness: explaining that “someone killing themselves isn’t illegal.” The conversation ended with the deputy asking Sarah to let them know if the situation was resolved.  

Despite the initial roadblock, Sarah continued advocating for help. She called a neighboring county, where the veteran had gone, and connected with a police officer who was a former Marine. Working with Sarah and the veteran’s wife, the officer helped locate the veteran in crisis and de-escalated the situation with the help of his Marine training and true empathy for the veteran. Through their collective resources, the veteran subsequently received inpatient mental health care at a VA hospital.  

Sarah recognized that the scenario wasn’t isolated. The mental toll of war left invisible scars swathed across the veteran community, but she also recognized the success of a fellow veteran meeting the crisis with shared language and an innate bond of brotherhood forged as heroes.  

What became clear to Sarah was the need to use the resources of the Independence Fund, which was already meeting the physical, emotional, and mental needs of wounded veterans across the state, and pair it with the support of the country’s most veteran-friendly state. The goal would be to create an innovative partnership with law enforcement and first responders that would give them training and resources necessary to de-escalate veterans in crisis, thereby mitigating the strain on the legal system. 

Since beginning its pilot program here in North Carolina, VJI has grown to become a statewide, officially funded and endorsed program. More than 3,000 police officers and community partners in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties have been trained in veteran-centric crisis response training. Thanks to state funding, VJI has also developed a three-hour course for law enforcement on veteran culture and the impacts of PTS and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). 

The state of North Carolina — its leaders and its residents — should be exceptionally proud of this program and what’s been achieved already.  

Success here will lay the foundation for a nationwide push to keep save the lives of veterans dealing with their invisible wounds left by their sacrifices to our nation.