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Heitkamp: Remembering to fight for our veterans

By Heidi Heitkamp

Six years ago, Eric Marts was in Iraq. He had joined the National Guard and was deployed to Fallujah for 22 months. While on patrol outside Fallujah, he was hit by a roadside bomb that exploded. Eric survived, but the bomb fully blinded him.

After returning home, Eric visited a blind rehab center, undergoing months of rehabilitation, and received a guide dog, Deacon, who has been Eric’s eyes ever since.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

Dedicated to helping and inspiring others, Eric now has his own radio show in Fargo on WDAY 970 AM on Saturday mornings called Heroes of the Heartland that focuses on servicemembers, veterans, and families — offering an outlet for those who have served to reach each other and share their stories.

Eric’s is a story of a man overcoming great obstacles and persevering. It’s a story of success. But it could have turned out very differently. All across the country we hear about servicemembers coming home from Iraq, Afghanistan and other places across the globe, struggling to catch themselves and integrate back into society.

We hear about the high rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, and see the internal pain so many of them face. We hear about the large numbers of unemployed young veterans struggling to transition to civilian jobs. And we hear about the high rates of homelessness among veterans of all ages unable to support themselves.

These aren’t just statistics — they’re real, personal stories for so many families. And I’m determined to make sure we do everything we can to give our veterans the care and support they have courageously earned.

When I met with veterans, including Eric, in six cities across North Dakota in July, I listened to their stories, witnessed the pain on many of their faces, and pledged to fight for them. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we don’t just thank our veterans for their service — an important first step — but that we actually fight for them, just as they fought for us.

That means making sure they get the job training they deserve so they can get good jobs after leaving the military. It means making sure they get the mental health services they need to combat PTSD and heal other mental wounds. It means making sure they get the compensation and benefits they absolutely earned. And it means making sure they get the education they deserve.

In our state, we understand the call to service as North Dakotans serve in the military at four times the rate of other states. There are nearly 60,000 veterans in North Dakota, and we have had 19 Medal of Honor winners — the highest military distinction. We all have parents, grandparents, siblings or neighbors who have answered that call.

The strong support for our military and veterans can be seen in every day North Dakota families. We are a state that waves American flags because we are deeply proud of our country, freedoms and those who work so hard to defend them.

We’re dedicated to making sure our children have the same sense of thoughtful patriotism and understanding of service. And we refuse to take for granted what so many before us have fought so hard to protect.

We also see the proud sense of service throughout the state in our Air Force Bases, National Guard units, veterans clinics, and VA medical centers. Just recently, the Fargo VA added health care professionals to provide more extensive support for veterans. Soon the Devils Lake veteran’s clinic will become a reality, offering tele-health service for veterans in rural communities to connect them with the best doctors across the state, and offer on-site staffing for veterans in the area.

These are important signs of progress, but we still have a very long way to go to make sure each and every veteran who needs help, is able to find it. That’s my commitment to the veterans of North Dakota — I will continue fighting for you, just as you fought for me.

Around this Veterans Day, and every day, I encourage North Dakotans to say thank you to our veterans and to also pledge to fight for them. They have served us with great courage, dedication, and selflessness. And they deserve nothing less than our 100 percent commitment to standing up for them.

Heitkamp is a Democrat from North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.