DURHAM — As the war in Afghanistan draws down, many more soldiers could soon be back in their communities, maybe disadvantaged and unemployed.
A local effort by veteran advocates, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nonprofits, businesses and college students aims to help vets regain civilian footholds.
I-Suntari, a low-profit limited liability company, or L3C, will streamline the effort. L3Cs are social enterprises focusing on social goals, not profits.
Hakeem Moore, 35, heads the company, whose goal is to to help vets become business owners, primarily in sustainable agriculture, or find employment with a supportive corporate sponsor.
A Gulf War-era II veteran, as those who served active duty after September 2001 are called, Moore knows veteran hardships.
According to a November Bureau of Labor Statistics release, Gulf War-era II veteran unemployment in October stood at 10 percent. The national unemployment rate that month was 7.3 percent.
The reason behind the high number varies, but the BLS notes that in 2012, more than one in four Gulf War-era II vets, or 28 percent, reported having a service-connected disability.
For Moore, this hits home.
After enlisting at 17, his military career ended with an honorable medical retirement three years ago. Even after returning from duty in the 2006 American troop “surge” in Iraq, however, Moore still found himself in battle.
Stress, insomnia and depression caused family tension.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, once he understood his situation, began to take control of it.
His path led him to agriculture, mainly aquaponics, or creating food by raising aquatic creatures and plants. In horticulture therapy, a decades-old recommendation for returning veterans, Moore found peace.
He could sleep again.
I-Suntari’s strategy, REVIVAL, stands for Re-establish Veteran’s Independence through Ventures in Agri-based Lifework.
Moore and partners like the Community Nutrition Partnership, which promotes increased access to fresh, local food, think urban agriculture training can help vets find or provide jobs or create small farms that can help feed disadvantaged neighborhoods, like inner-city Durham.
“We want to get vets sustained in a business and have them give back to the community that helped out,” Moore said.
I-Suntari will also draw on the knowledge of biotechnologist, Rachel Tinker-Kulberg, its chief technology officer, to teach vets the science behind sustainable agriculture like aquaponics.
Tinker-Kulberg believes large-scale urban food production will become important to cities in the future, improving access to healthy food for all while creating “green” labor markets.
I-Suntari will teach farming techniques, guide veterans to federal programs and other funding sources, and help them find work.
Students from N.C. Central University’s Business School will serve as interns providing community networking and learning what corporations need from vets.
Malavika Sundararajan, an assistant professor at NCCU’s business school, said a continuous “pipeline” of support must follow the veterans as they move through the stages to entrepreneurs.
The pipeline will have to include legal consultants, counseling psychologists as well as suppliers and distributors.
And local business owners, specifically farmers, must participate.
Taylor Fish Farm, one of the nation’s largest, is based in Orange County and raises tilapia it supplies to Whole Foods Market’s Southeast market.
The farm is providing access to 100 acres that would act as farming and aquaponics training ground. Veterans will have the chance to learn through Taylor’s example how successful farms run.
UDI Community Development Inc., a local development corporation, the Durham-based non-profit CAARE and Cedar Grove United Methodist Church are also providing land for vets to practice farming techniques.
Lori Johnson-Henry, an Army veteran and vocational rehabilitation counselor for the VA, explained many veterans are looking to be of “value” to their community.
“If there were more opportunities in the community, there would be more vets out there,” she said.
The training is available for a broad group of vets including Gulf War-era II veterans ages 25-45 with service-connected disabilities, vets ages 45-59 needing “up skills” training and any vet with PTSD or cognitive emotional disabilities.
All services will be free to vets without any negative impact on disability benefits.
With a March launch date, transportation logistics are currently being worked out.
“First we have to take care of human needs,” Moore said. “Then we prepare for jobs.”