Walz hosts roundtable on veteran services (video)
"If you can't get anything else right, do right by our veterans."
First District Rep. Tim Walz said he hears it all the time.
He heard it again Thursday in Austin, where he joined a roundtable discussion at VFW Post 1416 to discuss veteran affairs.
"We're fighting two wars, we've experienced the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, unrest like we've never seen before in the Middle East," Walz said. "The good news is this nation has never turned away from a challenge.
"When you put on that uniform, there's no Republicans, no Democrats, no Independents; there's Americans."
On the table were employment and education issues, as well as veterans health care. Points raised locally would be carried to the national level, he said, for a similar discussion planned next month in Washington, D.C.
The unemployment rate of veterans has been gauged to be 30 percent — and that estimate is too low, many say.
Some believe that total is being masked by the number of returning vets taking advantage of the GI Bill.
Others are volunteering for re-deployment because of unemployment.
"I think it's deplorable to leave our warriors and heroes unemployed when they come home," Walz said. "We're leaving out the best and the brightest. How do we do a better job of transitioning? We've found that the best therapy is keeping hands busy."
It's a problem Norman Hecimovich, chairman of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve in Austin, sees all too often.
"These men and women have security clearance, leadership skills, truck-driving skills — and they come back and still can't find a job," he said. "How can we go after the private industry to hire them? If you can drive a 5-ton truck through a combat zone, then you can sure drive a truck down a highway in Minnesota or anywhere else."
"I think our employers are trying to do the right thing," Walz said, "but we're asking a lot of them. I don't think they're avoiding hiring veterans.They're not there to be a welfare agency; they want to hire the best people, but if they don't, we need to know why."
A tax credit for employers hiring veterans sweetens the deal, he said, but it's also about stronger legal protection for those seeking work.
"It's not affirmative action," Walz explained, "but with all things equal, the veteran gets the job. When these people put their careers on hold, the others stepped ahead. It's not about preferential treatment. They've earned it.
"We want them in gainful employment, so they can go up the ladder."
The physical and mental health of returning veterans could be one stumbling block to their employment, one vet said.
Access to Veterans Administration health care is key.
"We're creating more veterans," Walz said, "and nothing's getting cheaper. We're always in a struggle of rural areas having access."
Austin, with its proximity to interstates 90 and 35, would be the ideal spot for a community-based outpatient clinic, or CBOC.
Southern Minnesota would certainly benefit from a CBOC, most agreed — including Steve Kleinglass, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs for the Minneapolis VA Health Care System.
He fielded questions about everything from disrespectful receptionists to lost medical records, arranging to meet personally with several veterans after Thursday's discussion to work out solutions.
By the same token, Kleinglass heard compliments on an improved eye care department, skilled surgical care and the convenience of ordering prescriptions online.
"My job is to correct what's wrong," he said later. "They deserve the best we can give them. I'm a vet, too, and I want the health care to be excellent — because I'm going to need it some day."
Walz is unwilling to cut any aid to veterans services, he said, holding up the Independent Budget for the Department of Veteran Affairs as the "gold standard."
"My view on this is, you've paid your debt when you signed your hand to go to war," he told the group. "We'll compromise on everything but the care of our vets."
The answer, Walz said, "had better transcend politics. These things happen on citizen voices. We need to provide better care to our active community of veterans."
Tell that to the rest of the country, said Nathan Pike, the veteran services officer for Fillmore County.
"America is at war, and Americans are at the mall," he said. "In my view, America needs to wake up; American (lives) are still on the line."
"I have a meeting like this on Afghanistan, and nobody shows up," he said. "But don't tell me this isn't important or expensive. It costs $65 billion to take care of American veterans."