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Heitkamp: Honor Veterans with Action, Not Just Words

By Staff | Nov 13, 2015

On Veterans Day, we honored our state’s proud veterans and thanked them for their service. And while words of thanks are important, the best way to honor their bravery is by living up to the promises we made to them when they enlisted and fought for our country.

One of the biggest obstacles we face in North Dakota is the distance between the rural areas where many veterans live and the cities where service and health care centers tend to be located.

To help overcome that and other challenges, I held my second Native American Veterans Summit last month in Belcourt, on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indian Reservation to hear from North Dakota’s Native veterans. More than 100 veterans from Turtle Mountain and across the state gathered to ask questions and gain access to housing, health care, employment assistance and other benefits by working directly with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs staff, Veterans Service Officers and other officials.

One of the folks who came to the summit was Joyce Gurule, of Belcourt, who lost her husband to complications related to Agent Orange a few years ago. She asked the panel of VA and other officials if there’s more the VA can do to screen for Agent Orange in Vietnam veterans, to make sure tumors and other complications are caught early and can be treated effectively.

What inspired me was how selfless Joyce’s question was. Joyce fiercely praised the hard work and kindness of the folks at the Fargo VA hospital, and said she only had good things to say about the quality of care her husband received before he passed away. But she had a simple question, and that question was echoed by many at the summit: What more can we do for our veterans?

Native Americans serve in the armed forces at a rate higher than any other ethnic group. But too often, veterans in Indian Country and, for that matter, all veterans don’t have access to all of the services and benefits they earned fighting to keep us safe. Veterans’ issues are often harder to solve in Indian Country, so summits like the one I held this year in Belcourt and last year at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck are particularly important. They provide a place for veterans to ask questions and get the assistance they’ve earned by meeting with officials across the spectrum, all in one place.

At each summit I hold, I’m inspired by the work that veterans like Bill Hale, of New Town, are putting in to make sure their fellow veterans are taken care of. The sense of duty that veterans like Bill display continues even after they take off the uniform, and it has not gone unnoticed. It was my privilege to come to Belcourt to hear about the challenges advocates like Bill face, so that I can work in the U.S. Senate to get veterans the services and benefits they need and deserve.

But it’s not only veterans in Indian Country who are underserved. Homelessness among North Dakota veterans ballooned 10 percent from 2006 to 2013, even as the rate of veteran homelessness countrywide fell by 33 percent.

These numbers are unacceptable. Broader access to physical and mental health resources for veterans in our state could make a difference, which is why I pressed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald last week to bring a full-time Vet Center to Grand Forks. In addition, I’ll continue to build support for my Connect with Veterans Act to help newly returning veterans adjust to civilian life.

It’s absolutely critical that we provide all our state’s veterans regardless of who they are, where they live, or when they served with the high quality benefits, services and health care they deserve. No matter what, I’ll keep fighting to make sure we fulfill our obligation to veterans, just as they fought for all of us.

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