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Veterans officials highlight state, local resources

MORRIS, Minn. -- Veterans have a variety of local, state and federal agencies to turn to for assistance with everything from healthcare to education.

But those services can be difficult to sort through without some help.

On Thursday, Aug. 15, staff from U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar's office, along with other state and local veterans affairs officials, stopped at the American Legion in Morris to highlight some of the resources available for veterans and their families.

Greg Swanholm, constituent advocate in Klobuchar's office, said he and other constituent advocates work as liaisons to federal agencies to offer assistance when constituents are working with those offices.

Swanholm has worked on veterans issues for about four years, reaching out to the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs on issues, especially the ongoing backlog of claims.

"We're no magic wand -- I'm not trying to overpromise in this regard -- sometime we can just get everyone reading the same sheet of music, on the same page, and go from there," he said.

Luke Johnson, a veterans service officer with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, urged veterans to think ahead and get on waiting lists for state veterans homes if they hope to stay there within the next few years.

The homes use rotating waiting lists. If a veteran or their spouse aren't interested in taking a spot when they get to the top of the list, they're just moved back to the bottom until another spot opens up, Johnson explained.

Johnson also highlighted two underused programs available through the State Soldier's Assistance Program (SSAP), a cash assistance program for veterans who need short-term help. There are several benefits available through the program including optical or dental assistance, subsistence assistance, a special needs grant, or assistance for utilities or home improvements for veterans and their families.

Case managers work closely with veterans to help them work through the programs. The programs have strict income and asset requirement, but may be available over multiple years. The best first step for accessing these programs is a county veterans service officer, said Johnson.

"They have the knowledge and know of all the avenues to get to the benefits that you qualify for and can explain to you why or why not you do qualify," said Johnson.

Veterans service officers have been required in every county since 1943. Hugh Reimers, the VSO for Stevens and Pope counties for the last 10 years, splits his time between the two. Reimers is in Pope County on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in the morning. He comes to Stevens County Wednesday afternoon, Thursday and Friday.

Reimers said he distributes information about veterans benefits and often serves as the starting or referring point for many of the state and federal veterans programs.

One of the programs Reimers oversees in Stevens County is the veterans van, which offers rides for veterans to any clinic or hospital for a VA-approved medical appointment.

"We have a strong community that is very committed to working on behalf of our veterans of Minnesota," concluded Swanholm. "There's no really one-stop shop, but everybody getting together and talking about who does what can really bring a lot of weapons to the table to deal with any issues that someone's facing."