Minnesota's Veterans: The Road Back Home
Rep. Jerry Newton (DFL) District 49B, Minnesota Legislature
Rep. Gerald F. "Jerry" Newton (DFL) represents District 49B, which includes portions of the cities of Andover and Coon Rapids in Anoka County in the northern Twin Cities metropolitan area. Before being elected to the Minnesota House, Newton served from 1955-1978 in the U.S. Army. He retired as a sergeant major after serving in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and spending seven years in the Middle East. He is vice chair of the House Veteran Affairs Division committee.
Comments by Rep. Jerry Newton
Question: Looking at the proposals being considered by the Military Advisory Group, are there any specific ideas or proposals that you're supporting?
What we recommended at the last meeting is that all of these different organizations — the Legion and the VFW, the VA (Veterans Administration), people who give legal counsel to veterans, active-duty people — that they get together and come up with a combined list of issues that are important to all of them. And that they screen the gubernatorial candidates of both parties, and ask them where they stand on these issues, and see how much support they think they can garner from gubernatorial candidates. And then pass that information back on to their organizations to use the political influence, because generally speaking, veterans don't act as sort of a political entity.
Gov. Pawlenty has indicated that veterans issues are off the table — that he's not going to make cuts in veterans funding. But he didn't mention anything about any new programs that might come up, and that's always one of the issues — some of these things require some funding, maybe not specifically for the individuals in the program, but for the administration of the program.
Question: Of the proposals that have been advanced so far, which strike you as especially important?
There are a couple I am carrying that are relatively minor — having an official recognition of VFW Day and American Legion Day in Minnesota. But also, Dan Severson and I had worked on a bill that has to do with getting a six-point preference on contracts to veterans for state-funded projects. In other words, if Mn/DOT or the University or one of the other agencies in the state has a project, and a veteran-owned company applies for that project and makes a bid, that they are to be given six percentage points preference. If the next lowest bid was $100,000, and the veteran came in with $105.5 thousand, because they get that six percent preference, the veteran would get the bid. As you probably know, that same preference applies to minorities, and so what it does is give veterans equal footing with women and minorities. We were caught by surprise because the bill, when it came to the Legislature in the final form, had some changes in there. Someone inserted that it was only for veterans who served after 9/11, and what that effectively does is screen out all of the Vietnam era vets. We are going to be coming in to have that changed.
Question: So you would extend the preference given to veteran-owned businesses seeking state-funded contracts to include all veterans?
Yes. (Rep.) Dan (Severson) and I both will be working on that.
Question: You served in Vietnam. From your perspective, how are things different for the men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan today, than it was for earlier generations of soldiers?
It's a major change. After Vietnam, because it was so controversial, the returning veterans were just maltreated — they were treated as baby killers and spit upon. In fact, I elected as a career person not to come back to the United States. I went directly from Vietnam to Europe — I stopped over for one night at Fort Dix to get a new uniform. That was the case for a lot of the career people. We didn't want to come back to the states, and we tended to go for other overseas services.
There is just this world of difference now of thanking people for their military service, and the respect that they get. They are not afraid to wear a uniform if they are still on active duty. But it's primarily because we no longer have the draft, and the threat of being pulled into the service for the civilians, that Iraq or Afghanistan isn't as much of a political issue as the Vietnam War was. And it's a good thing. We do have an all volunteer force, and we have right now more reservists and National Guard serving in combat than we had in Vietnam. So now you've got people coming out of the community, who are known in the community, going for a period of time and then coming back, and hopefully picking up their jobs and being a member of the community again.
Question: What do you see as some of the major challenges facing returning service members?
One of the biggest issues that isn't being properly addressed is the traumatic brain injuries that people are suffering. The people that are in explosions and are injured tend to get identified and treated. But the studies are showing that people who are close to those explosions, and may not get knocked off their feet, can be injured — the force of the explosion is enough. We should be identifying these people, and I think every veteran coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan should be checked, just to make sure that they don't have traumatic brain injury.
I am a retired Army Sgt. Maj, and I can tell you that career people, unless they are visibly, physically injured, tend not to want to talk about injuries, because it could affect their career. So there is a tendency not to mention things, even though they may have been close to explosions. But down the road, what we're looking at is a nursing home issue, because these injuries will start showing up after a period of time, and we're going to end up having a lot of young, and not so young, returning veterans occupying nursing homes, when the signs of brain damage start appearing. It will be a big load on the states and the federal government for paying for these things.
We are also seeing an incredible number of suicides, exceeding what we've had in other places. In Vietnam, when we went, we tended to know that it was for a one year, even those of us who were career, and it was relatively rare that someone would be sent back to Vietnam after they have served a tour over there. But these youngsters are going back multiple times, and it creates tremendous stress on the families, on the returning veterans, and I think we're seeing this uptick in suicides as a result of that. So in addition to checking their physical health and making sure that their brain is okay, we have to make sure that they still have their heads screwed on right, and that they get psychiatric and psychological assistance, when they return.
Once again, this is one of these issues where there is a stigma attached, and people tend not to want to see psychologists or psychiatrists — they think they can handle the issue, that it's a temporary thing. I just think it's terribly important that we make sure that we get adequate medical care for returning veterans, for veterans who have been deployed once and are being deployed again, that we do more counseling with their families. You need some-one on-one. You've got some young spouses that just don't know how to deal with this as well.
Question: What specifically would you see as the next step in finding a solution to these issues?
I think screening, medical screening. We have to make sure that the funding is there through the state programs to get these returning veterans into the hands of the VA, and to make sure that they do go and that there is follow-up. So it's not just, here's an appointment, you're supposed to drop in at the VA, with no follow-up to make sure that they went, and that if they do indeed follow up treatment, that its monitored. Question: Is there a need for additional funding to deal with these issues? Generally speaking, the VA itself as a federal administration is funded, and they are set up to take care of the people that are returning. In fact our own VA, here in Minnesota and Minneapolis, has a trauma center specifically for brain injuries that is relatively new. So it's there. It's just making sure that the military follows through and gets people into the right channels.