Vetting the vets

At your service: Newly hired Veterans Service Office superviser Kevin Turner told commissioners that his department is there to help local vets find and secure the services they need. photo by Max Cooper

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting Nov. 1, 2011

  • CTS property owner withdraws appeal of condemnation
  • Planning Board appointments postponed

With Veterans Day approaching, the Buncombe County commissioners dedicated most of their Nov. 1 meeting to honoring those county residents who’ve served in the military and reviewing the local services available to them.

After Commissioner K. Ray Bailey thanked them in his invocation, the commissioners watched a video that scrolled the names of all 93 veterans currently employed by the county. One of them — Kevin Turner, who heads the county's Veterans Service Office — then went to the lectern to update the board on his agency’s work, painting a dark picture of the challenges ahead as Vietnam-era vets age and younger soldiers continue to return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last year, roughly 21,390 vets lived in Buncombe County; only five of the state’s 100 counties were home to more veterans, he reported. And the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spent more than $136 million on services for Buncombe County’s vets — a figure topped by only six other Tar Heel counties. Turner said he expects those costs to rise dramatically in the coming years as soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan battle a wide array of problems, particularly with mental health.

Nationwide, more than 300,000 of those vets are projected to experience mental health problems at some point in the future, said Turner. Treating them, he added, could cost at least $660 billion — and that’s not counting the unknown long-term costs related to the more than 220,000 traumatic brain injuries soldiers have sustained in the last decade.

Already, the suicide rate among vets is more than twice that of the rest of the population: On average, 18 veterans kill themselves every day, reported Turner. And while 8 percent of U.S. residents are veterans, they account for 20 percent of the homeless population, he pointed out.

On the bright side, however, Turner affirmed that his department is there to help local vets, explaining that his staff helps clients find and secure the services available to them.

"We provide counseling assistance to local veterans and their dependents on their rights and entitlements under various state and federal laws," Turner told the board. "We're advocates. … We don't have to guard the system’s resources. … We help them find help. We assist them through the sometimes very complicated maze of state and other paperwork."

Asked by board Chair David Gantt how the commissioners could help, Turner said the most important thing is education and outreach — letting local veterans know help is available.

"Our goal is to help a veteran who might be losing their way, getting into some kind of legal issue," he concluded. "We have the privilege of making sure the veteran knows that they are not forgotten, and the country and community appreciate the sacrifices they've made."

Cynthia Breyfogle, director of the Charles George VA Medical Center in east Asheville, said her facility currently serves more than 38,000 patients, providing everything from inpatient psychiatric and substance-abuse care to emergency, surgical and hospice services.

Most current patients are from the Vietnam era, she noted, plus about 3,800 “Operation New Dawn” veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The center’s 1,637 employees include 125 doctors, 600 nurses and 51 psychiatrists and social workers. The hospital, said Breyfogle, has a good reputation and a patient-satisfaction rating that surpasses the national average.

"Our staff does an excellent job in providing care for veterans," she told the commissioners. "I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but we do have veterans who drive past other VA medical centers to come to Asheville, because they choose to receive their care here."

The commissioners praised both Turner and Breyfogle. Bailey called their reports "excellent," and Gantt added, "Thank you for your good work."

Commissioner Bill Stanley, the only current board member who’s served in the military, was absent due to sickness, noted Gantt.

CTS hearing canceled

A scheduled hearing on the county’s plans to demolish the vacant former CTS of Asheville plant in Skyland was canceled after Mills Gap Road Associates, the owner of the contaminated property, withdrew its appeal of the decision, leaving the county free to proceed with the demolition. County inspectors had previously determined that repairing the condemned structure isn’t feasible.

Other business

In additon, the commissioners unanimously: • accepted $288,503 in federal funding for the county's emergency heating-assistance program. • agreed to delay making Planning Board appointments until Nov. 15, to allow time for conducting interviews. • proclaimed November "Adoption Awareness Month" and Sunday, Nov. 13 "UNC-Asheville Bulldog Day."

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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