by Brandon Stahl

Sen. Amy Klobuchar focused on military and veterans’ issues during a Duluth stop Thursday during a tour of Minnesota.

The freshman senator said that among her top priorities would be to ensure that the F-16s at the 148th Air National Guard base in Duluth eventually would be replaced.

“As you know, there are concerns about the planes being phased out and whether they’ll be replaced,” she told an audience of mostly veterans in Duluth. “We continue to press the Air Force to maintain the readiness of the air base. It’s important that we keep that base and maintain that base.”

Klobuchar said she and Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman have held joint meetings with the Air National Guard and local officials to discuss the future of the aircraft.

“We did at least get some commitment for some planes coming in, but we want an even bigger commitment and we’ll continue working on that through the year,” she said.

Base spokeswoman Audra Flanagan said the two Minnesota senators have secured new planes in 2014, but that Klobuchar was hoping to secure new planes before 2014. It’s been a challenge to get new planes to the base because of their availability, Flanagan said.

“A lot of the states are wanting new aircraft as well,” she said. “Everybody’s competing and wanting the same aircraft.”

Getting new planes is crucial to the base’s viability, Flanagan said. Without them, “we would ultimately close. That’s what we do. We fly and maintain aircraft.”

On another local issue, Klobuchar said that after the closure of Veterans Administration clinics in Rice Lake, Wis., and Hayward,Wis., she would do “everything I can” to help keep the local Twin Ports VA clinic open.

“You have so many of our troops coming home from small towns, and they need that one place to go,” she said. “And I’m very hopeful we’re going to keep it open and keep working on it.”

While there is no immediate threat of it closing, the lease between the clinic and the VA is up in summer 2009 and it’s not known what will happen after that, said Jeff Hall, an outreach coordinator and union representative at the clinic.

Ralph Heussner, a VA public affairs officer in Minneapolis, said when the clinic’s lease ends, the facility might stay at its current spot in Superior or relocate to another spot in the Twin Ports. Whichever happens, he said, there are no plans for the VA to leave the area. In fact, the clinic might expand, he said.

“We are committed to being there,” Heussner said.

On more general veterans’ issues, Klobuchar said she would work to bring more attention and money to treating traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder among returning troops. She said the Pentagon underestimated the number of returning soldiers who would need treatment by four times.

When she was campaigning, “people would come up to me and say: ‘I can’t get help,’ ” she said. “When I got to Washington and I looked at those actual numbers, I understood where it went wrong.”

She said a bill passed last year provides a $3.7 billion increase in contingent emergency spending for veterans’ programs, bringing the total spending for veterans’ medical care to a projected $37.2 billion in 2008.