South Carolina

Program helps SC veterans transition to civilian life while working to reduce veteran suicides

COLUMBIA, SC (WCSC) – South Carolina is home to nearly 400,000 veterans, but as many of them make the transition from service to civilian life, they face new challenges in this new chapter.

And in the Palmetto State, veterans are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide as anyone else. According to the CDC, the state’s suicide rate is 16.3 per 100,000 residents, but it is 30.3 per 100,000 among veterans.

The South Carolina Department of Veterans Affairs lists reducing this troubling rate as one of its top priorities, and a statewide program aims to do so while helping more veterans thrive after completing their service.

The Palmetto Pathfinder program matches veterans who are established in their communities, known as Pathfinders, with new veterans transitioning from service to civilian life, or with those who need a helping hand.

“If we can make these connections at the right time, it can help reduce suicides,” said SCDVA operations coordinator Kailay Washington. “Building those relationships with those people or connecting them with the right resources at the right time.”

That may mean helping them find housing or navigating the VA healthcare system.

Some new veterans may be unfamiliar with South Carolina or new to adult civilian life.

“Veterans go through different issues, more than many people would know, and when you build that relationship and trust someone who’s been through what you’ve been through, it helps,” Washington, who served in the Air Force, said. “You don’t have to educate them about specific things or how difficult it is.”

There are currently 119 Palmetto Pathfinders volunteering across South Carolina, and SCDVA wants to double that number to serve more veterans.

Among them is Gordon Johnson, who served his country for more than 30 years: first in the Marine Corps and then in the Army National Guard before retiring in 2011.

A few years later, Johnson accompanied his friend, a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, on a flight of honor to Washington, DC

During that trip, he learned that his friend had never applied for VA benefits to receive medical care. Johnson helped him, and his ministry to those like him ministered was kindled.

He leads a veterans group for his church in Chapin, which holds twice-monthly meetings, and became a Boy Scout in 2021, the same year the program began.

“Sometimes they just want to talk. That way you’re not a total stranger when you move into a community. You know there’s someone there, a boy scout,” he said.

Having worn the uniform for decades, including on multiple overseas assignments, Johnson knows what it’s like to hang it up.

So he will be there for the South Carolinas who are doing the same.

“Our veterans have done a lot over the last few years — I mean, we’ve spent 20 years in Afghanistan, so that’s a lot of soldiers who’ve basically been out there for a year or at least nine months and seen a lot of things and done a lot, he said. “So when they ask for help, they just need it.”

South Carolina veterans interested in applying to be Boy Scouts, as well as veterans wishing to connect with a Boy Scout, may do so by visiting the South Carolina Department of Veterans Affairs website.

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