State political and military leaders offered words of praise and thanks to Minnesota veterans Wednesday during a Veterans Day ceremony in Inver Grove Heights. They also pledged to continue working on public policies aimed at helping veterans and their families.
The Richfield Symphonic Band provided the music for the Minnesota State Veterans Day Program, including a medley of songs for each branch of service.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty told the audience that Americans will forever owe a debt of gratitude to veterans and their families. The Republican governor has made veterans programs a top budget priority during his two terms in office, and it's a commitment Pawlenty says must continue at all levels of government.
"We've made great progress in our country, thanks to the good work of our federal representatives and to -- on a bipartisan basis -- our state representatives here in Minnesota," Pawlenty said. "We've made great progress, but the needs of veterans and the cause of supporting our military continues. And the needs change, and they evolve over time. So this is and ongoing and continuous effort. And we will all remain committed to that."
On this Veterans Day, several speakers also paid special tribute to the St. Paul soldier killed in last week's shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who attended the memorial service Tuesday at Fort Hood, praised Pfc. Kahm Xiong and other veterans for their selfless dedication. Klobuchar said the decisions of lawmakers must match that dedication.
"Our men and women in the military must get all the support that they need, both while they serve in uniform and when they come home," Klobuchar said. "Because when our men and women signed up for war there wasn't a waiting line, right? And when they come back to the United States of America, there shouldn't be a waiting line."
Klobuchar highlighted efforts to increase health care and higher education funding for veterans, and also the need to reduce veterans' unemployment.
Congresswoman Betty McCollum also reflected on the Fort Hood memorial service, as well as the death of Kahm Xiong. She said the incident reminded her of the many dangers soldiers face. McCollum also said she's growing increasingly concerned about mental health issues in the military.
"Fort Hood has had 76 suicides, and the domestic violence in Fort Hood is something that they're not sweeping under the rug, they're trying to address," McCollum said. "We have to be open and welcome our soldiers to talk about, not only their physical wounds, but the wounds we can't see."
Mental health issues are also a big concern for Sen. Al Franken, who placed part of the blame on multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Franken also highlighted the passage of his legislation that helps provide specially-trained service dogs to wounded veterans. He said the Veterans Administration is planning to study the pilot program.
"To me it's enough that the dogs simply make the vets feel better," Franken said. "But my suspicion and hope is that the study will demonstrate a strong return on investment, and before long we'll see an explosion in this program. I just want to see dogs everywhere with vets."
Veterans gathered for the event applauded each speaker's pledge of support. But Stan Kowalski, a past VFW commander, told the elected officials he was looking for a different kind of commitment. Kowalski said he wants a promise that they'll get all veterans back home, safe and accounted for.