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

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Published: Nov. 11, 2022 at 7:20 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Nearly 400,000 veterans call South Carolina home, but as many of them transition from service to civilian life, they face new challenges in that new chapter.

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

The South Carolina Department of Veterans’ Affairs lists reducing that troubling rate among its top priorities, and a statewide program aims to do that while helping more veterans thrive once their service is over.

The Palmetto Pathfinder Program pairs veterans who are established in their communities, called pathfinders, with new veterans transitioning from their service to civilian life or with those who need a helping hand.

“If we can make these connections at the correct timing, it can help reduce suicides,” SCDVA Operations Coordinator Kailay Washington said. “Building those relationships up with these individuals or connecting them with the right resources at the right time.”

That can mean helping them find housing or navigate the VA health system.

For some new veterans, they may be unfamiliar with South Carolina, or this may be their first time figuring out civilian life as an adult.

“Veterans go through different issues more than a lot of people would know about, and when you build that relationship and you trust someone who has gone through what you’ve gone through, it helps,” Washington, who served in the Air Force, said. “You don’t have to go about educating them on certain things or how difficult it is.”

There are 119 Palmetto Pathfinders currently volunteering across South Carolina, and SCDVA wants to double that number to help 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 an honor flight to Washington, D.C.

During that trip, he learned his friend had never filed for VA benefits to receive medical care. Johnson helped him, and his service to those who served like him was sparked.

He leads a veterans ministry group for his church in Chapin, holding twice-monthly meetings, and became a pathfinder in 2021, the same year the program began.

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

After wearing the uniform for decades, including during multiple deployments overseas, Johnson knows what it is like to hang it up.

So he will be there for South Carolinians doing the same.

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

South Carolina veterans who are interested in applying to become a pathfinder, as well as veterans who would like to connect with a pathfinder, can do so by visiting the South Carolina Department of Veterans’ Affairs website.

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