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NC Governor officially declares April 24 ‘Wounded Heroes Day’

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper during a debate at WRAL studios in Raleigh, N.C., on October 18, 2016. (Chris Seward/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

The long road home from war isn’t just about travel.

Coming home from deployments shouldn’t be the hardest part of serving in a war, Sarah Verardo told North Carolina lawmakers on Wednesday morning. Her husband, Afghanistan war veteran Army Sgt. Mike Verardo, suffered catastrophic wounds serving with the 82nd Airborne Division.

As a result of two IED attacks in 2010, Verardo lost his left leg and much of his left arm and was left with burns and a traumatic brain injury. He has had 120 subsequent surgeries.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday signed legislation, House Bill 138, to declare April 24 North Carolina’s Wounded Heroes Day, which will forever mark Verardo’s Alive Day — the day of the injuries that nearly killed him. The General Assembly had passed the legislation unanimously.

The day also would recognize what Verardo and other combat veterans have sacrificed to serve the United States in the military.

Sarah and Mike Verardo met in high school biology class.

“It’s been a very long road home,” Sarah Verardo said in a phone interview with The News & Observer on Tuesday.

“There’s more sickness than health at this point in our lives, and that’s very, very challenging,” she said. The couple have three young daughters.

“Day to day, no two days are the same. Mike does require help at home,” she said. He has to sleep in a hospital bed and needs help with some daily activities.

“A good day for us is there are no massive health emergencies. … There’s a lot of limbo,” she said.

Union County Republican Sen. Todd Johnson sponsored the Senate bill creating Wounded Heroes Day. He’s known the Verardos for years, as they have been active in the community, Johnson told The News & Observer in an interview.

Johnson credited Sarah Verardo for being her husband’s voice, especially on harder days when his health means he might not be able to get up and talk.

“Michael and Sarah are probably some of the greatest people you will meet,” Johnson said. The Wounded Heroes Day in his honor is about more than one family, he said.

“It isn’t just him, it’s the hundreds of thousands of people that he represents. It’s the folks that have taken up that calling to go and serve,” Johnson said.

Wounded veterans

House Majority Leader John Bell told The N&O that Verardo exemplifies “the best our state and country has to offer” and that he and other wounded veterans deserve support and recognition.

“I can’t think of a better person to align this new day of recognition with than Sgt. Verardo who has sacrificed so much for this country,” Bell said Tuesday.

In addition to Wounded Heroes Day, another bill, sponsored by Bell, is House Bill 370, “No Veteran Left Behind.” It would provide local law enforcement with additional training to improve crisis intervention and services for veterans who are suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues, Bell said.

The bill includes $500,000 for the Independence Fund and its Veterans Justice Intervention Program, which is led by Sarah Verardo and based in Charlotte. Bell said they want to help get veterans the assistance they need in interacting with the criminal justice system — focusing on the first 911 call or contact with police, to help deescalate and decriminalize those experiences.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported an average of 17.6 veteran suicides per day in 2018, the latest data available in the federal agency’s 2020 suicide prevention report.

Army Sgt. Nick Armendariz was also in the 82nd Airborne, served alongside Verardo and was wounded in Afghanistan.

Armendariz was an infantryman deployed three times. He’s now a disabled veteran who was referred to Veterans Treatment Court after a DUI arrest.

Armendariz is also involved with the Independence Fund. In a phone interview with The N&O, Armendariz said No Veteran Left Behind would help law enforcement learn to better deescalate situations with veterans who may have substance abuse issues or post-traumatic stress disorder.

He said that nobody who comes home is “broken,” but he had a hard time readjusting into general society and made mistakes. He said that an incident he had with law enforcement on Veterans Day 2018 was deescalated from going “further south” by one officer, but thinks more officers would do better with more training in recognizing the signs of combat veterans in crisis.

Armendariz, who now lives in Charlotte, joined the military in 2006 at age 18, when he was living in California. His first deployment to Afghanistan was 15 months, then he came back, then deployed again for another 12 months. Then a third time, for seven months. He came home in September 2012 and left active duty as a squad leader, then served another two years in the Reserves.

The House passed the No Veteran Left Behind Act on Wednesday afternoon 118-0. Several disabled veterans were on the House floor for the vote. A Wounded Heroes Day ceremony followed at Bicentennial Plaza.

President Joe Biden announced that the United States is withdrawing this year from Afghanistan after 20 years. Armendariz said that those calls are made “much higher above my head” but in his experience the military helped a lot locally and he got to witness rebuilding.

Armendariz said the latest North Carolina legislation is a reminder: “We all struggle. We all have our issues. We all have our demons we fight daily. It’s OK not to be OK. As long as you recognize that there’s an issue, that’s kind of a first step — to reclaiming yourself.”

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