Local group helps returning vets

Stephen Mills
Stephen Mills, 44, is a former Army infantry sergeant. He was injured in the first Gulf war and was helped by MACV, the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Stephen Mills says MACV saved his life. Mills was an Army infantry sergeant in the first Iraq war. He served six months in combat and injured his vertebrae while on duty.

"(The injury) didn't show up for quite a while," says Mills. "I had a lot of pain, a lot of numbness in my legs and feet. They found out later it was cracked, and I had some swelling down by my spinal cord, and I had four surgeries to fix it."

Commissioner Clark Dyrud
Clark Dyrud is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, which cooperates with MACV in finding help for Minnesota's 426,000 military veterans.
Photo courtesy of Department of Veterans Affairs

Mills, 44, is a tall, well-muscled man of few words. He says the medical discharge from the military was a disappointment, and contributed to problems which Mills prefers not to discuss in detail.

"I planned on making the military my career, and I kind of had some slips and stumbles along the way," he says.

Mills says he hit bottom and went to the Veterans Administration for help. The VA referred him to MACV -- The Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. Mills says the MACV placed him in an eight-month long program to kick his drug and alcohol addiction.

The 13-year-old MACV helps hundreds of military veterans each year with housing and other issues. Its money comes from federal and state grants and donations. The organization has offices in Duluth, Mankato and the Twin Cities.

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Stephen Mills says he's been clean and sober since finishing the treatment more than two years ago. His injuries prevent him from holding a job, but he volunteers every weekday at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Minneapolis.

Combat truly changes a person permanently. Things are never quite the same.

MACV board chairman Don Allen says besides medical problems, returning vets face readjustment problems because there's no decompression time.

"With these soldiers, one day they are fighting to survive and every sense is tingling to not get killed, and the next day they're home," Allen says.

Don Allen, 57, is a stocky transplanted Texan living with his family in the southern Minnesota community of Fairmont.

He served 22 years in the Army, first as a paratrooper, then as a member of the Army's special forces with tours of duty in Vietnam and El Salvador.

Allen is one of 426,000 military veterans in Minnesota. The Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans works closely with the state's Department of Veterans Affairs, which is also led by a Vietnam vet.

Veterans Affairs Commissioner Clark Dyrud, a Thief River Falls native, was wounded in Vietnam and returned to Minnesota where he became a career veterans affairs worker. Most veterans, he says, are deeply affected by active duty.

"They are working, they appear to be doing well, but those lives have never been the same. Combat truly changes a person permanently. Things are never quite the same," Dyrud says.

Mankato housing project
The Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans is building 11 units of housing in Mankato for disabled veterans using money from HUD, the Minnesota Housing Finance agency, the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, Blue Earth County and a land donation from the William Radichel family.
Photo courtesy of Susan Sorenson

The MACV's Don Allen remembers the recent predicament of one family. The husband went off to war and the wife and children moved back home to live with her parents. Things exploded when the husband returned and the living arrangement didn't work out.

"So he comes back, they have words, and the next thing you know, Mom and Dad say you can't live here anymore. No money. Not really in the town they want to be. No job."

Allen says the MACV found the family temporary, then permanent housing, got the kids enrolled in school and arranged for job training for the parents.

State Veterans Commissioner Clark Dyrud says MACV can move quickly because the organization is small, independent and has little bureaucracy.

"They can respond from the outset of getting someone a place to stay right now, all the way up to working with someone after they've received medical or mental attention. They're able to get them back into being a functioning human being again," Clark says.

But smallness also means there's not much money.

Don Allen says the group leverages its money by asking for help from others.

"We spend so much of our time coordinating with other agencies -- get $100 from here, $100 from here -- because we're having to turn away people because there's just not enough money," he says.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is asking lawmakers this session to nearly triple -- from about $1.5 million to $4 million -- the money spent on some of the state's veterans advocacy programs. Separate bills in the House and Senate propose smaller increases.

Veterans Affairs Commissioner Clark Dyrud says proposals to increase spending recognize that a good share of the human and dollar costs of war are still ahead of us.

"There's that old line that the cost of war really begins when the firing stops," Dyrud says.

Other bills before lawmakers this session propose a range of benefits for vets, all the way from free lifetime entry to state parks to exemptions for some income from state taxes.