Veterans issues seen as a priority

The nearly 3,000 Minnesota military personnel currently seeing active duty represent more than 580 communities.

When the troops return, likely in August, it will be the greatest contingent of returning veterans, en masse, in the state's history. Clark Dyrud, commissioner of the Department of Veterans Affairs, wants to make sure that each receives the benefits to which she or he is entitled.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget proposal to substantially increase funding for veterans services will help meet these needs, Dyrud told the Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Division of the House Finance Committee Jan. 23.

He said that only about 50 percent of veterans apply for the benefits they have coming; therefore, several outreach programs are proposed, along with expanded benefits.

The cornerstone of the governor's veterans support package is the Minnesota GI Bill for Veterans, which would supplement the federal GI Bill by providing eligible veterans and dependents up to $1,000 per semester to a total of $10,000 for up to five years for higher education.

While this package is proposed in the higher education slice of the budget, the department would support the proposal with more on-campus veterans assistance offices. Figures show that 30 percent of veterans entering college drop out during the first year of school, Dyrud said. To help veterans, especially those who had been in combat, succeed in school, the number of offices would increase from six to 18.

The budget would also fund county veterans service offices.

While all 87 counties provide this service, it was an unfunded state mandate until $200,000 was budgeted last year. Dyrud proposes $3.3 million for the upcoming biennium. He said returning veterans largely "trickle in unnoticed," and his proposal would expand services to help combat veterans reintegrate and make them aware of veteran programs and services.

The expanded programming proposals raised a concern with Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar), chairman of the committee.

"We want to make sure, as we move forward, that the budget not only addresses programming, but staffing needs. We don't want things to fall through the cracks because there aren't enough bodies," he said.