For a veteran, a return from combat does not mean that the war has ended. Instead, many veterans return fighting on a new frontline — their own minds. The horrors of war on and off the battlefield are nuanced and far-reaching, and it is deeply personal.
As a military spouse to a retired Army Ranger with eight combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I am more uniquely aware than most of the issues that define many of our veterans’ post-war lives.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the top issues that our veterans’ face when they return. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 11-20% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. Additionally, the Pew Charitable Trust completed a survey noting that 36% of post-9/11 veterans surveyed indicated that they suffer from PTSD.
Sadly, in February 2022, Army veteran Makari Smith of Granville County, North Carolina, died following an interaction with police. Smith’s mother had called law enforcement during her son’s mental breakdown, which stemmed from his combat-related PTSD. Following her 911 call, Smith’s mother left their home to get an involuntary commitment order for him as a measure to help address his mental health issues. White she was gone, Smith was shot by police and later died at the hospital. It is a tragic and preventable situation for both law enforcement and the families of struggling veterans.
This is why the General Assembly passed the No Veteran Left Behind (NVLB) Act unanimously in 2021. I was proud to support the NVLB Act, which seeks to avoid unnecessary criminalization of mental illness, substance abuse, and incarceration among veterans.
In partnership with the state of North Carolina, through NVLB, The Independence Fund’s Veterans Justice Initiative (VJI) program is already making a sweeping impact in law enforcement agencies across our state’s 100 counties. One of the great parts of the VJI program is providing law enforcement and first responders with specific training on how to deal with veterans experiencing mental health emergencies.
The full scope of a veterans’ mental health needs is vast, and VJI’s approach is comprehensive, starting with a veteran’s initial contact with the legal process. Helping veterans navigate through alternative routes, such as Veteran Treatment Courts, will allow the system to focus on their unique, individual circumstances. Importantly, the program also establishes a strong aftercare plan through an extensive network of resources and partner organizations to help a veteran find healing and hope beyond their crisis.
Having the privilege to serve as a member of the House Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs, I am committed to making sure North Carolina is the most veteran-friendly state in the nation. This work is deeply interwoven in North Carolina’s DNA — and VJI’s success is a testament to the shared bond of service between veterans and law enforcement.
Makari Smith’s tragic death shines a spotlight on the continuing needs of veterans across the state. His life was one marked by courage and heroism, and his death is a heartbreaking reminder that another type of war can rage within the minds of our veterans here at home.
I’m proud to support The Independence Fund as it seeks to bring VJI to every county in North Carolina to save the lives of our nation’s dedicated heroes who have already paid an immense price for our freedom.