Commentary: All veterans deserve all of Minnesota's help and care
Like most Minnesotans, as Veterans Day approached this year, my mind kept returning to the service and sacrifice being made by our service members currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in particular the current members of the Minnesota N...
Like most Minnesotans, as Veterans Day approached this year, my mind kept returning to the service and sacrifice being made by our service members currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in particular the current members of the Minnesota National Guard and Reserve troops and their families.
Certainly, the past couple of years haven't been easy ones for anyone serving in either the Guard or Reserves. Lives have been disrupted, families have been separated and careers put on hold -- all in the name of protecting the freedom we enjoy in this country.
I can speak to this from personal experience. My son is currently serving in the Minnesota Army National Guard and his unit is scheduled to be shipped to Iraq this spring. Like so many Minnesota family members, I'm proud of my son and his decision to serve in the National Guard. I'm also human and the prospect of his heading to Iraq is scary. I pray every day for his safe return.
It helps that so many Minnesotans recognize the sacrifice these brave men and women are making on our behalf. Although the federal government has the primary responsibility of taking care of veterans and the military, Minnesota's state government has also taken a more active role.
As the chair of the House Agriculture and Veterans Finance Committee, I can say that a great deal of time was spent during the 2007 legislative session focusing on the needs of our soldiers as they return from overseas duty. I was extremely gratified at the level of bipartisan support from our committee and in the Legislature for those efforts, particularly the passage of the package to help returning soldiers readjust to civilian life.
The centerpiece was the passage of the Minnesota GI Bill, which provides up to $1,000 a semester in financial aid to returning soldiers for college and post-secondary school training. The bill also extends education benefits to the spouses of military members who were killed in action.
We also passed the Heroes Earned Retirement Opportunities Act, which allows tax-exempt combat pay to be used for IRA contributions.
In addition to those provisions, overall funding for the State Soldier Assistance Program was increased by 14 percent, the budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs went up by 70 percent and $1.5 million was provided for Veterans County Service Officer assistance grants to enhance programs provided to veterans.
In our Veterans Affairs funding bill, we also asked the Minnesota National Guard, the Veterans Homes Board and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to look at the psychological and mental health needs of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and determine if adequate support is in place.
That report, which was coauthored by psychiatrist Dr. William Sheehan and released last week, shows the growing challenges facing Minnesota in treating soldiers who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of the high incidence of traumatic brain injuries seen in these returning veterans.
We still have a lot of work to do to make sure we meet the challenge of providing care for the thousands of returning veterans, particularly in rural areas of the state. Part of that work includes completion of a new mental health-focused Veterans Homes Board facility being planned for west central Minnesota, which we hope to include in this year's bonding bill.
I'm confident the work will get done. One thing that unites almost all Minnesotans is the respect we have for the service provided by the men and women in our Armed Forces.
This Veterans Day, I also hope you'll join me in extending a sincere thank you to all of the veterans in our area. I also hope you'll commit yourself to doing what you can to help returning veterans reintegrate into civilian life. After all, they deserve nothing less.
Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, is chairman of the House Agriculture, Rural Economies & Veterans Affairs Finance Committee.