Four Minnesota political leaders toured a veterans center in St. Paul on Thursday to pay tribute to those who served in the military and call for better access to mental health care and readjustment services for veterans.
Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips made the visit on Veterans Day to highlight the value of centers like the three in Minnesota for helping veterans get the support they need. Among other things, the centers provide counseling, employment assistance and referrals for other services.
The four leaders are all backing legislation aimed at establishing more veterans centers across the country. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith introduced such a bill last week and Phillips introduced the House version just before Memorial Day. Minnesota has centers in St. Paul, Anoka and Duluth. The leaders said they're needed in other parts of the state, too.
Phillips said at a news conference after the tour that finding the resources to take care of Americans when they come back from war is personal for him.
“My dad did not come home from Vietnam,” Phillips noted. His father was killed when Phillips was just six months old.
“I think about the tens of thousands who came home from Vietnam who were mistreated, uncared-for, and struggle to this day," Phillips said. "And at the very least ... we must build a bridge for veterans who have served this country and ensure our freedoms, especially at such precarious times for democracy, both here and around the world.”
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Veterans centers were originally envisioned as safe havens where Vietnam veterans could get the services they need, said Walz, who served for 24 years in the Minnesota National Guard. The model is cost-effective, he said, and the centers are consistently ranked by veterans as one of their favorite benefits.
“Minnesota actually is due for more vet centers,” the governor said, noting that Minnesota has a bit of a connection — Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough grew up in Minnesota.
Craig said it took her an hour to drive to the St. Paul center, but it's as much as two hours away from parts of her southeastern Minnesota district, so establishing more of them around Minnesota “is a huge priority for me.” Craig said she has made “way too many phone calls of condolences” to families of veterans who have died by suicide.
State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke, a 30-year Army veteran, said he has used a veterans center himself, and routinely referred his soldiers to them. “It was key to my success to transition back into society,” he said.
There are gaps in southern, western and northern Minnesota that need to be filled as the state works to reduce veteran suicides and homelessness, Herke said.
"We lose over a hundred veterans to suicide each year in Minnesota. This is a key component to success for that," the commissioner said.