First in a series
It started as a favor a call to Charlotte commercial developer Tommy Norman from Army Col. Kevin McDonnell, an old friend who worked in the Pentagon.
McDonnell knew of a young Marine whod had his leg amputated after a parachute accident. The Marine was getting out of the service and looking to move his family to Charlotte.
Could Norman help?
Later, McDonnell would call again and two more military families came to Charlotte. By the time Norman and wife Patty had helped settle the sixth, theyd recruited friends and formed the nonprofit Charlotte Bridge Home, to ease new veterans and their families into civilian life.
In two years, Charlotte Bridge has helped 220 families start new lives here.
That number could grow dramatically in 2013 with 300,000 troops expected to leave the military during the drawdown from Afghanistan. The Department of Defense has told Charlotte Bridge that as many as 4,000 troops, many with families, are likely headed to the Charlotte region.
Many of these young people come from small-town America and they dont want to return to a small town, Norman said. They go through our airport and get a feel for the place some decide thats where Im going to plant my flag.
When they arrive, most have to get a second career. Yet their military training doesnt often translate well in a civilian workforce, Norman said, and they arrive with a smorgasbord of issues.
Many come with health problems, having gotten pretty banged up in Iraq and Afghanistan. They need job training, housing and education for their children.
Charlotte Bridge, with a staff of six, interviews veterans and spouses to determine the issues and goes from there.
We wrap our arms around them and tell them: Not only do we want you to come home, but we think you can come to this area and build as successful a civilian world as you built a military world, Norman said. As a country, we train these guys and gals to go off to war, but dont train them for 24 hours to return to the civilian world.
The transition is hard. We try to make it easier.
Normans soft spot for the military comes naturally.
He grew up in Charlotte, where his late father managed the massive Navy shell-loading plant at what is now Arrowood during World War II. His late father-in-law was a Marine captain who led his unit into the bloody battle of Iwo Jima and earned a Silver Star medal.
In 1966, fresh out of Wake Forest, Norman enlisted in the Armys Special Forces. At the time, the country was digging deeper into the Vietnam Wr and more than once his unit was close to being deployed, but never was.
Still, he stayed in the Army for six years teaching courses, learning to jump from planes, and going to officer training and advanced weapons schools.
The military just got into my blood, Norman said.
In the late 1980s, Norman and two Charlotte friends, Roddey Dowd Sr. and Obie Oakley, decided Mecklenburg needed to honor its 101 natives who were among the 58,000 who died in Vietnam.
They raised $356,000 and built the Vietnam memorial that now stands between Third and Fourth streets.
Helping families adapt
Two years ago, the phone calls started coming from Col. McDonnell, his friend who is now director of the U.S. Special Operations Command Care Coalition.
And Norman got more involved in military issues. This time, it was about helping military families referred by many sources, including VA hospitals.
One is Daniel Moose, who was U.S. Army active duty for seven years with a 15-month tour in Afghanistan. He got out in February. Moose grew up in Charlotte and returned with a girlfriend and her son. His mother remarried and is letting them stay in her house.
Now what he needs is a job.
He wants to be a police officer, and Paul Passaro at Charlotte Bridge helped him build a resume, sent him to interview classes and constantly sends him job leads.
There are millions of websites you can go to, but you dont know which one, Moose said. Vets just dont know a whole lot when they move to civilian life.
Charlotte Bridge leads you in the right direction.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Lane McKinney had planned to make the Army a career. But after nearly 10 years in Special Forces and four tours to Afghanistan, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and had to transition out.
His wife, Penny, is in finance, so they thought Charlotte would be a good place to settle.
I have a terminal illness and Im trying to set a path forward for my wife and (4-year-old) daughter, he said. I wanted to put them in a town where there are opportunities.
McKinney, 32, was working in the Armys mentoring program when he met Norman at a conference for wounded warriors last year in Tampa.
They stayed in touch and gradually Norman persuaded him to move his family to Charlotte as he began severing military ties.
Its very challenging if youve spent a good while in the military and all of a sudden youre in a place where you dont know anybody and you dont know what youre going to do for a job, McKinney said.
Charlotte Bridge found the family a real estate agent, introduced them to people with connections and other veterans who understood the re-entry process.
McKinneys pursuing a job where he can use his military intelligence skills, such as working in research and development for a company manufacturing products going overseas. Pennys looking for work in the finance industry.
Its a hard transition, he said. Theres a different pace, different expectations. In Special Forces, youre used to having accountability with no excuses. You get things done with no oversight. In the civilian workforce, you have a meeting to have a meeting.
Its not a negative its just adjusting to a different culture.