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Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN): Madam Speaker listens to vets

By Chao Xiong

Luke Weinandt returned from Iraq in 2004 completely unaware of the medical and financial benefits he had earned for serving in the U.S. Army.

'When I came back, I pretty much just stayed in my father-in-law's basement for a few months trying to figure out what I was going to do,' the 25-year-old Mankato resident told Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at a roundtable discussion Monday at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.

Veterans from southern Minnesota told Walz and Pelosi that many vets, especially young soldiers from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, don't know they have access to benefits for college and health care. Also, some end up traveling hours to Minneapolis for medical care, often aggravating the very conditions they're seeking treatment for, the vets said.

The multigenerational group called for greater outreach to returning soldiers and more rural outpatient clinics. 'We have to do better,' Pelosi said.

Weinandt eventually used the GI Bill to pay for schooling at Minnesota State University, Mankato. But the bill released money after deadlines for paying tuition, so Weinandt was forced to take out student loans.

Regardless, he and the veterans said that once they navigated the system, they received 'world-class' care.

Iraq veteran Michael McLaughlin, 23, said he watched as many of his peers who were unfamiliar with their benefits retreated into seclusion. The Marine said his father, Tom McLaughlin, helped him.

The elder McLaughlin, a Vietnam veteran, stressed the need to change old rules for a generation of young, mobile veterans. He told Pelosi that the VA paid to have his bathroom remodeled in 1984 after he lost a leg in the war, but refused to help when he moved in 2003. He said he was told he couldn't apply for the money twice.

'Oh my God,' said a shocked Pelosi.

Tom McLaughlin spent $4,000 of his own money to alter his new bathroom. At one point, he held aloft a cell-phone-sized battery for his high-tech computerized prosthesis and urged leaders to push for similar technological improvements.

Outreach to veterans is failing because many aren't told to check a box on their discharge papers that sends their information to local veterans service officers who can help them, the veterans said. Many are told not to check the box because of potential identity theft; in some states the papers are public record, said Lisa Jaeger, 30, an Air Force veteran from Wabasha.

Jaeger built bombs until 2002. She didn't know she was eligible for medical care until 2006, when she got a job as Wabasha County's sole veterans service officer. Jaeger serves about 3,000 veterans from Wabasha and nearby counties. She guesses there are many more left in the dark.

'I know people who've missed out on benefits for 60 years,' she said.

Jaeger, the only woman veteran at the roundtable, also called for improved health care services for women.

Asked what concrete steps lawmakers could take to address the concerns voiced Monday, Walz, a former National Guard member who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, noted success last year in raising the mileage reimbursement for veterans who travel for medical care from 11 cents per mile to 28.5 cents. He said there's a push to raise that to 48.5 cents.