Ethel "Cookie" Burch (third from the right) established a local peer group for Black women veterans. Photo courtesy of Ethel Burch

Mecklenburg County is home to more than 150,000 veterans, according to Steven Cole, vice president of advancement at Veterans Bridge Home. The local nonprofit assists veterans with finding jobs, housing and social connections. 

The urgency for Veterans Bridge Home and other organizations that focus on reacclimating veterans to society is needed as many face challenges returning to civilian life. 

Ethel “Cookie” Burch often visits Veterans Bridge Home to help former military members on their path after service. Burch, a 16-year U.S. Army veteran, meets and speaks with Black veterans from the area about disability compensation, benefits and to offer moral support. 

“It’s so hard for them to get their compensation,” Burch said. “It’s like pulling teeth without dental instruments.”

Once a veteran leaves the military, Burch said they are handed a manila envelope holding medical and personal records — nothing about benefits, support groups or disability compensation. 

Photo courtesy of Ethel Burch

In January, she saw a need to specifically help Black women veterans. Burch established a local peer group as part of the Women Veterans Network (WoVen). The nationwide network connects women veterans representing different ages, branches, ranks and lengths of service. Burch’s peer group is composed of 11 members — nine U.S. Army and two U.S. Air Force. Among the group, Burch is known as the “information person” because of her knowledge about possible benefits and disability compensation.

In 2016, there were 510,000 uninsured U.S. veterans ages 19 to 64, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Both the number and rate of working-age veterans without health insurance declined to a new low from 2013-16. 

Burch helps veterans with their paperwork, forms and claims. Some benefits she said veterans can receive include tax write-offs, reduced life insurance costs and even free tombstones. She’s helped over 20 veterans get disability compensation from Veterans Affairs. 

“My passion is to help others,” Burch said. 

Plan for a career

Nicholas Riggins, who spent eight years in the U.S. Air Force, said many people mistakenly join the military with the end of active service in mind. He advises younger people to pick their military job wisely, which helps in considering what they want to do after their enlistment. 

“If you’re looking at a business opportunity or learning more knowledge, then pursue it,” he said. “The military service is a great place to learn, travel and get money for school.”

While in the military, Riggins worked in transportation and warehousing as a logistics traffic manager. After his discharge, he went on to lead the Military Families and Veterans Services department at Central Piedmont Community College. He later joined Amazon’s Delivery Service Partner (DSP) program. 

In 2019, he and his wife, Brandi, founded Heroes Logistics LLC, a full-service delivery provider. The company currently leads a fleet of more than 52 vehicles with 100 employees serving customers in the greater Charlotte area.

“We see this as a ministry for us,” Riggins said. “We’re here to help change the trajectory of peoples’ lives.”

U.S. Air Force veteran Nicholas Riggins and his wife, Brandi, started a full-service delivery company called Heroes Logistics LLC. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Riggins

Riggins said his time in the military helped him see beyond the woods that surrounded his home in rural Easton, Winston-Salem. 

“For me, I couldn’t have seen what I’ve seen or been able to experience what I’ve experienced without my service,” he told QCity Metro. 

Veterans Day amid Covid-19

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Veterans Bridge Home will be hosting a virtual Veterans Day Celebration from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 11. Interested individuals can register here

“People want to do something for Veterans Day, and in a perfect world, we would be,” Cole said. 

Jonathan is a former QCity Metro reporter who covered Charlotte neighborhoods north of uptown. He also reported on education, public safety and health.

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