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RALEIGH — The North Carolina Senate last week passed a bi-partisan bill telling state and local health agencies to pay more attention to soldiers returning from war.

The vote was unanimous and many feel the legislation will begin to fill some of the treatment cracks for North Carolina soldiers, and especially National Guardsmen the U.S. military has relied heavily on in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Senate Bill 597 used to have $1.4 million in it to hire three people apiece to work at the state’s seven National Guard family assistance centers, including the one in Asheville. Those people would have focused on counseling and outreach — making sure soldiers know what help they can get, then making sure they get it.

The new positions were recommended by a lengthy study that preceded the bill. But they were left out as part of a broader plan to balance the budget without extending the temporary penny sales tax that’s propped up the budget for the last two years.

Now the bill simply calls on local health boards, schools, universities and other agencies to do a better job of engaging soldiers and their families, and to designate existing staff for the job.

The bill will still help, according to state Sen. William Purcell, a Scotland Democrat, medical doctor and the bill’s primary sponsor. Among other things, a new focus on traumatic brain injuries is written into the legislation.

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“But I’m not sure we can do all the things (in it) without money,” Purcell said.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, praised the bill as-is, saying he feels local health providers and others already have the funding and staffing needed to implement it. State Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake and an Army reservist who served in Afghanistan, said the money would have helped, but supporters knew it would be tough to find while the state is making cuts across the board.

“(The bill) would be a step forward,” Martin said. “It’s not a touchdown.”

A number of studies have shown a major increase in mental and emotional problems for National Guardsmen — part-time soldiers called up for multiple deployments to augment the United State’s full-time military. Time magazine reported in April that the suicide rate for National Guard members increased 450 percent from 2004 to 2011.

“This fact underscores the plight of Guardsmen, who — unlike their full-time Army buddies — lack the jobs, support and camaraderie found on military bases after they return home from war,” the magazine wrote. “Instead, Guard troops go in the span of a week or two from fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan to living among civilians who have no idea what they’ve just gone through. Many of the Guardsmen can’t find work or adequate mental-health resources.”

In North Carolina, Guard members often live far away from their armory, distancing them from help, according to Stephanie Nissen, behavioral health director for the North Carolina National Guard. There also aren’t many counselors with training in military psychology, and it can be difficult to navigate the patchwork of federal, state and local programs meant to help, she said.

“There are many gaps,” Nissen said.

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The North Carolina Guard had five suicides last year, prompting a new intervention program put into place in November, Nissen said. Since then there have been 60 interventions, and no suicides, Nissen said, calling the program “a finger in the dam.” Nissen said she’s “very excited” about Senate Bill 597, and that it should help make sure various groups “are operating as one.”

“Down the road obviously we’re going to need additional resources…” Nissen said. “(But) we are very pleased to be on (the) radar.”

State Rep. Grier Martin said there’s “not a doubt” society needs to do more for soldiers. But he also said the United States has improved the way it treats veterans significantly in recent years, even since he came home in 2003.

“The screening and evaluations I got pale in comparison to what returning verterans now get,” Martin said. “But, in the end, war is such a devastating and traumatic experience. … You can make the best effort in the world and it’s so serious it can’t be fixed.”

The N.C. National Guard has an emergency contact number for soldiers in trouble. Call (800) 621-4136 and press 1 for help.

Travis Fain

Travis Fain is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ctfain@yahoo.com.

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