WEST JEFFERSON — Ilario G. Pantano, Director of North Carolina Veterans Affairs, visited Ashe County on Tuesday, July 21 to discuss his mission to make North Carolina the most veteran friendly state in America.
Pantano became director in 2013 and has been actively working throughout North Carolina to educate Veterans on services available to them with the help of his team.
Prior to becoming director, Pantano was a Marine sniper/scout leader during the 1991 Gulf War and later in support of UN peace-keeping operations in the ex-Yugoslavia. After his enlisted service, he earned a degree in business and finance and worked in the financial sector for Goldman Sachs. After losing many co-workers in the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, he rejoined the Marines and led a platoon of infantry Marines in the first fight for Fallujah, Iraq in 2004.
This was Pantano’s first trip to Ashe County and the visit was intended to serve as a catalyst for the formation of an Ashe County Veterans Coalition between all county Veteran Service Organizations.
Pantano appeared at the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce for a press conference and discussed NC4Vets, a magazine designed to reach out to Veterans to help them with their transition back home. NC4Vets is a resource guide to employment, health care, veteran’s benefits, housing, personal services and education that is available to veterans in North Carolina.
“We want people to transition here,” Pantano said. “We want people to make North Carolina their home.”
According to Pantano, the Veterans Affairs office released 50,000 copies of the first issue of the magazine last Veterans Day. Pantano said the copies were immediately absorbed into the community. Another 150,000 copies of a second issue was released on Memorial Day of this year.
Pantano said there are plans to produce another issue for Memorial Day, 2016.
According to Pantano, the state now has more interaction with the counties in terms of veteran services.
“We’re coming along side to help the counties,” Pantano said. “We want to put something in the hand of every veteran and let them know we have resources for them.”
Pantano said he aims to offer a service that is readily available to all veterans in the state and can be easily accessed by those who are already in distress.
“When they see that stuff like this is out there, it gives a level of psychological assurance,” Pantano said. “Our officers and our teams are exposed to a lot of stress from these folks that have a lot of anxiety and we want to try and litigate that and help them out.”
The magazine also offers a hot-line Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The hot-line allows veterans to seek help and receive answers to any questions regarding services available to them. Pantano said he hopes to eventually expand the hours of the hot-line to be able to serve more veterans.
According to Pantano, Metlife Technology currently helps operate their call center but he is currently seeking the help of other corporate partners.
“We are looking forward to getting some corporate partners and other partners to help us get one (magazine) in the hand of every veteran in the state,” Pantano said. “We’re going to the corporate side which has a responsibility in supporting the efforts of our troops and our service members and i’m not afraid to put my hand out to them.”
Pantano also referenced an analysis taken using data from hot-lines and office visits that shows substance abuse and many psychological issues come from financial distress. He said employment is one of the focuses of the magazine and is intended to point veterans in the right direction in gaining access to education.
According to the NC Division of Veterans of Affair Annual Report, the state helped 11,000 veterans in 2013 and that number more than doubled to 24,000 in 2014.
“It came from messaging more. We are also sending some of our team into our VA hospitals and the VA clinics because that’s where the veterans are,” Pantano said. “We are putting our service officers where the action is.”
Pantano also spoke to High Country veterans and their family members during a program sponsored by the New River Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America that was held at the Ashe County Arts Council on Tuesday, July 21 at 7 p.m. Veterans were able to meet with Pantano during a “meet and greet” that was held before the program.
NC4Vets is free and available online or in print at the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce and the Ashe County Veterans Services office.
For more information about NC4Vets, visit www.NC4VETS.com or call 844-624-8387.
Hannah Myers can be reached at 336-846-7164 or on Twitter @cmedia_hmyers.