Gov. Mark Dayton told hundreds of veterans Friday in Inver Grove Heights that the best way to show gratitude to returning soldiers and veterans is to give them jobs. The unemployment disparity between veterans and civilians was on the minds of many military and political leaders who gathered at the state's official observance of Veterans Day.
View a photo gallery from Friday's ceremony.
The ceremony was at times both festive and solemn. Hundreds of veterans who filled a gymnasium in Inver Grove Heights rose from their chairs when they heard the official song of their military branch. Some were grizzled and a bit wobbly with age, but managed to stand in salute or pump their fists to the familiar bars.
Gov. Dayton said Americans owe a great debt to these men and women who sacrificed so much for their country.
But he said a lot of soldiers are coming back from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to find a dearth of jobs at home.
"Here in Minnesota, the unemployment among Minnesota veterans is by some counts more than double the state average," said Dayton. "There's something terribly wrong when women and men who have served their country have returned home and find their only opening for them is the unemployment line."
Dayton said the best anti-poverty program for a veteran is a job.
"I intend to do all I can to encourage businesses to hire veterans," he said.
This week, Dayton announced a plan to expand the state GI bill so that all veterans can receive job-skills training. Currently, the benefits are only available to those who have served after 9/11. Dayton says the proposal has broad bipartisan support in the Legislature.
The numbers back up Dayton's concerns. A study this year by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress showed 23 percent of Minnesota veterans who have served since the 2001 terrorist attacks are out of work. That's more than three times the unemployment rate for civilians.
Minnesota National Guard Maj. Gen. Richard Nash said returning soldiers are suffering from an image problem beset by sweeping generalizations.
"Today's generation of veterans is being increasingly and falsely being painted as troubled through claims of, 'mostly returning veterans are suicidal,' or as a rule, suffering from PTSD," said Nash. "I want to be clear: today's veterans suffering from the mental and physical tolls of war should have access to every resource of society available to help. That said, we must tell the story of our veterans."
Nash said today's returning soldiers are educated, trained, driven, and disciplined. Their innovation can help inject a sluggish economy. "They are not victims," he told the crowd.
Yet the Minnesota National Guard acknowledges that veteran suicides are a problem, and there's a national campaign to prevent soldiers from taking their own lives. In Minnesota, there have been at least four suicides by National Guard members this year alone.
But Nash said the biggest fight ahead for returning soldiers is unemployment. In Minnesota, he said more than 12 percent of the National Guard veterans are unemployed, nearly double the statewide average.
A bill passed by the Senate this week would give tax credits to employers who hire out-of-work veterans, and bigger tax credits for disabled veterans.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said the legislation would also require returning troops to go to a so-called job training "boot camp," where they would learn how to apply their military experience to civilian jobs.