With about 3,100 Mecklenburg County veterans looking for work and more returning from America’s wars overseas, local corporations and nonprofits want to raise $1 million by Memorial Day to help them find jobs.

On Wednesday, the Wells Fargo and Goodrich charitable foundations unveiled an effort that national experts are already calling a model for re-integrating returning soldiers.

It’s called the Charlotte Veterans Employment Initiative, and it aims to bring companies, nonprofit groups and educators together to train vets and help them find not just jobs, but careers.

The two foundations hope to meet their campaign goal by Memorial Day, so the money can be used for scholarships, career planning and placing veterans in jobs through Central Piedmont Community College.

Marshall Larsen of Goodrich Corporation issued a challenge Wednesday for the community to help. To set the example, the Goodrich and Wells Fargo foundations are providing the first $350,000 toward the goal.

“We’ve got a chance here to set the standard,” Larsen said. “This is something not being done anywhere else. We can be the model.”

The kick-off came during an early morning event at One Wells Fargo Tower that brought together 30 local companies with ties to the military, as well as community leaders such as Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and former mayor Harvey Gantt.

“Most of us believe soldiers return from Iraq or Afghanistan and have all these support services. … But that doesn’t happen,” Kendall Alley of Wells Fargo told the gathering.

“It then becomes the responsibility of the community to move in and help connect the pieces. … We do an incredible job preparing people to serve for us around the world. We need to do a better job of bringing them back.”

Most of the money raised will boost veterans’ services at CPCC, which currently has 2,200 veterans enrolled.

However, a portion will go to Charlotte Bridge Home, a new nonprofit with ties to Foundation for the Carolinas and a mission of connecting veterans to resources and services.

The scale of the problem

Charlotte Bridge Home is credited with inspiring the veterans’ initiative when it sought guidance and money from Foundation for the Carolinas last year. That led to a $50,000 grant, part of which paid for a community report to identify problems facing vets and potential solutions.

Among the revelations:

Joblessness among Mecklenburg County’s veterans is 10.5 percent, and 3,100 are looking for work. Across the region, it’s closer to 9,000 jobless vets.

Advocates for veterans say the situation will worsen in coming months because the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to bring 4,000 military personnel back to the state by December.

Unemployment runs at 30 percent nationally for veterans ages 18 to 24. Among African-American veterans in that age range, it’s 48 percent. For African-American females, it’s 61 percent.

The Charlotte region is home to nearly 85,000 veterans 18 to 64, which is about 20 percent of the state’s employment-age veterans.

“It’s a sure thing many returning veterans will come to the Charlotte area looking for work,” said Brian Collier of Foundation for the Carolinas.

“Charlotte needs to prepare for this in a deliberate, thoughtful way, or it will deal with it later in “crisis mode,” he added.

“The needs might seem huge and in some ways could be viewed as overwhelming,” said Collier. “But this initiative is a perfect example of what Charlotte does best: It’s a city that, once it understands an issue, gets people together to solve a problem.”

One man got program rolling

Special Forces veteran Thomas Norman, chairman of Charlotte Bridge Home, first broached the subject with the Foundation for the Carolinas. He also reached out to the Wells Fargo and Goodrich foundations for help.

All this began not as a nonprofit, said Norman, but as a series of favors he did to help younger vets, including some dealing with severe war-related injuries. When one veteran in need became a dozen, Norman figured it was time to start a nonprofit and Charlotte Bridge Home was born.

“Every story gets to your heart,” said Norman. “They have seen more than you and I will ever see in our lives. … What we’re doing is a boost for these kids and, Lord willing, we’ll make a life for one veteran at a time.”

The effort has drawn attention from the White House and the Pentagon, he said.

Cynthia Gilman of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine agrees the plan is a model for the nation.

“Charlotte is taking on this issue in a comprehensive fashion. … This kind of approach is something we’ve seen in no other community,” said Gilman, who attended the kickoff.

The message hit home with attendees at the kick off, including Manuel Zapata, president of Zapata Engineering.

“Forty-five percent of my labor force has served in the military,” said Zapata, a military contractor. “This effort is something we should be proud of and I intend to support it. I’m ready to give today.”

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