Sometimes it’s easiest to solve problems by getting more perspectives in one place.
That’s one of the goals Chuck Ackman, southern Minnesota outreach director for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, articulated Tuesday as he joined with other Senate staffers and representatives from an array of state agencies for a public forum at the Owatonna VFW. All were there to try to identify and address the administrative and bureaucratic roadblocks that confront service members, veterans and their families.
“Sen. Klobuchar sends us out on the road on staff tours occasionally, and it’s all about the resources that are available to veterans,” Ackman said. “We have the power to convene. Often we can pull together a group like this.”
Greg Swanholm, a Klobuchar staffer with a particular focus on veterans issues, talked about several bills recently passed or supported by the senator, including a pilot program to let veterans schedule VA appointments through a phone app and a bill to help veterans with medical training transfer into the paramedic field. In response to years of complaints, lawmakers also recently passed a law that gives the VA Secretary expanded authority to fire and give incentives to agency staff, which Klobuchar supported.
One issue they’re currently working on, Swanholm said, is health issues in some veterans connected to chemical burn pits they were exposed to in Iraq.
“This is a really concerning issue that we’re seeing crop up, and we want to get in front of it now so veterans years from now aren’t dealing with a lack of understanding,” he said.
The Steele County Veterans Service Officer, Rene Gilormini, spoke about the services available to returning troops, as did representatives of state agencies handling veterans affairs and workforce development.
The event was attended only by a few members of the public, but they still brought questions and issues for the group to address. Cassie Kohn, whose husband is a member of a National Guard unit based in Winona, wanted to talk about the Guard’s recent deployment to the Sinai Peninsula. Because it was deemed to be less than a year, the troops were not eligible for a number of benefits after the tour.
“There were multiple families upset they felt their soldiers were treated as second-class citizens for this deployment,” she said.
While none of those problems were solved Tuesday, the group left to their forum in Mankato with an array of suggestions and areas to investigate further. National Guard Major Scott Ingalsbe said the Guard has strong working relationships with the state’s legislators that have helped address past problems.
“We’re very pleased with support from our congressional delegation,” he said. “We feel we’re represented well by our representatives in the halls of Congress, and often unanimously so.”