ECU service van to aid veterans across eastern North Carolina
By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services
Jack Hibbs, a U.S. Navy veteran, lived on the streets for seven years. Now in his own home, he jumped at the chance to volunteer to help at a Wayne County Veterans Outreach Stand Down event Nov. 6 in Goldsboro when a friend offered to drive him there.
At events like this, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, community and state agencies and other volunteers bring information, services, clothing and food to veterans – particularly homeless veterans – and their families.
A new participant is East Carolina University, which received an $828,956 grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services to help equip its existing Operation Re-Entry van with satellite communication and other technology to take medical, psychiatric and behavioral health services to veterans and their families where they live.
The van still has to be outfitted, but the goal is to deploy to eastern North Carolina communities early next year. ECU faculty, staff and students are creating awareness at events this fall.
“It’s really about building relationships,” said Dr. Paul Toriello, grant project director and chair of the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation Studies in the College of Allied Health Sciences. “If all we do is to provide a cup of coffee, shake a hand and listen it’s important to connect. It’s an opportunity to show how much we value veterans. We have these services, but we’re not going to pressure anyone. It’s up to them to choose their level of engagement.”
One-on-one interventions will be delivered through telehealth, Web and application-based systems including motivational interviewing, biofeedback, telepsychiatry consultation and vocational counseling.
Filling a need
Services are needed as more veterans are surviving combat and suicide rates are increasing. Since 2010, suicide has been the second leading cause of death among service members, according to 2012 data from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center.
Veterans today are living with amputations, traumatic brain injury or post traumatic stress disorder, depression, drug abuse, or some combination of ailments or illnesses.
Often, services that veterans need are not available in rural counties or veterans don’t know how or have a way to access services. ECU hopes to break down barriers and help veterans get services that they may not seek on their own.
“ECU, geographically, sits in the center of the third most concentrated military corridor in the country,” said Jim Menke, a U.S. Navy retiree and ECU military research liaison and project manager for Operation Re-entry North Carolina, a federally-funded, multi-year, campus wide initiative that is developing model ways to help veterans. “We are a public-service university. It’s great to do research, but if you’re not translating the research into service and making a difference in people’s lives, you’re not being as impactful as you can be.”
Craven, Cumberland, Onslow and Wayne counties are home to six major military installations – the biggest are Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune – with approximately 125,000 veterans living in the four counties or a neighboring county.
Compared to North Carolina overall, those four counties have poverty levels and unemployment rates at or higher than the state average and median household incomes at or below the state average, according to state labor statistics.
The Fayetteville VA assisted about 2,000 people – who are homeless or at risk for being homeless – from its 21-county service area for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. “Some may be foreclosed on or evicted or at a high risk to become homeless,” said Martin P. Murphy, coordinator of the Health Care for Homeless Veterans Program at the Fayetteville VA. “If they don’t have a place to go, they typically stay where they were last deployed, and that is often here.”
ECU is working closely with the VA and community partners Le’Chris Health Systems, Waynesboro Family Clinic and Carolina Outreach as well as faith-based and criminal justice agencies to help reach veterans and coordinate services.
Murphy said helping at-risk veterans takes a comprehensive effort. “Some of our veterans will probably feel good having an academic perspective and approach,” Murphy said. “It will be a way to engage them in the system and help them with things they need.”
Dominiquie Clemmons-James, a doctoral student in addictions and rehabilitation studies assigned to ECU’s psychophysiology lab led by Dr. Carmen Russoniello, is one of five doctoral and seven master’s degree students from across disciplines working on the project.
Clemmons-James is a licensed counselor whose career goal is to bridge the gap between rehabilitation counseling and biofeedback, particularly for military populations. Some are more receptive to biofeedback than talk therapy, she said.
On the van, people will receive the same services, standard of care and confidentiality that they get in clinic at ECU and see results in real time. “We will have the equipment, systems and technology to reach a whole lot more people in a shorter amount of time,” she said.
‘A sense of purpose’
Eastern North Carolina has a long, proud military connection. Currently 35 percent of the state’s population is directly or indirectly connected to the military, and the state ranks fourth in the nation in active military duty personnel per capita. There are approximately 800,000 veterans living in North Carolina, ranking fifth in the nation for military retirees and ninth for veterans, according to 2011 data from the N.C. Institute of Medicine.
The words “homelessness” and “veteran” should never go together because veterans have given so much to their country, Murphy said.
Some veterans may not be living outside or in shelters, but couch surfing and staying with friends or relatives, Menke said.
Employment is often a first step, and several industries in the Pitt County area have stepped up to offer veteran re-integration training for the workforce, Menke said. Vocational counseling will be a key part of ECU’s efforts.
“It’s very important for veterans to have a sense of purpose,” Menke said. “That sense of serving is so ingrained.”
Hibbs, the 48-year-old veteran from Kinston, said he wished the ECU van and its planned services or something similar had been available when he was on the streets. He’s looking for a full-time job where he can work outside with his hands. “No transportation makes it hard to get a job,” he said. In the meantime, he helps with maintenance and repairs at two half-way houses in Kinston.
“A lot of people when they see a homeless person will say ‘they want to be out on the street,’ and some do, but a lot don’t. They just hit a run of bad luck,” Hibbs said.