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Veterans roundtable: Heitkamp identifies lack of mental health for returning troops

Press Photo by Bryan Horwath Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., speaks with Stark County Commissioner Duane Wolf following a roundtable discussion about veterans issues at the Strom Center in Dickinson on Monday.

A hot-button national issue was the main item of interest during a veterans roundtable at the Strom Center in Dickinson on Monday.

Hosted by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., the discussion -- which included nearly two dozen community leaders, health care professionals and service veterans -- was highlighted by talk of the lack of mental health services available to returning U.S. military members.

"There is an acute and desperate need for our returning veterans," Heitkamp said during the hour-long listening session. "This is a systemic health care problem in America. This is not unique to a veterans issue, but we cannot continue to lose veterans at the rate we're losing veterans to suicide and mental health-related illness."

A military veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes, according to a report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this year. Flanked by Stark County Veterans Services Officer Leslie Ross, Heitkamp said the availability of mental health services to veterans living and working in North Dakota is a problem the state needs to fix.

"This problem is going to come to Dickinson, North Dakota, and it's going to come to Williston, North Dakota," Heitkamp said. "Because we are inviting more and more vets, as we should, to come and work in our state. We need to be able to provide the services those veterans will need."

Echoing a nationwide call for more available mental health services and practitioners for both civilians and veterans alike following highly publicized shootings in Colorado, Arizona, Connecticut and other states in recent years, Heitkamp and several others stressed the need to beef up care in southwest North Dakota.

"I have some concerns with the young veterans that will be coming back," said Ken Kussy of Dickinson. "I read somewhere there's another million-plus that will be coming back. If you look at the backgrounds of a lot of those individuals, they've been deployed three or four times. From my own experience, being deployed once was enough to mess me up. I can't imagine some of the issues these veterans are going to have."

Kussy, Heitkamp, Ross and others at the roundtable agreed another big obstacle to getting veterans mental health care is the stigma attached to such services and how it relates to a segment of the population that prides itself on strength, both physical and mental.

"The single biggest problem that North Dakota will have looking into the future is workforce development," Heitkamp said. "We need to figure out how to keep workers in this state. We need to make this a state where people want to come and live and work and this is an opportunity we have with returning veterans. But we cannot ignore these problems. This has to be a place where they can get help for these problems."

Officials from the state VA regional office in Fargo said several psychiatrists have either been hired or are in the process of being hired, including a full-time psychiatrist stationed in Bismarck.

An issue she called "near and dear" to her, Heitkamp pledged to continue her quest to find mental health help for veterans and civilians alike. Last month, Heitkamp sponsored a resolution that passed in the U.S. Senate making June National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month.

Other issues discussed during the forum was the need to reach veterans who have suffered from military sexual trauma, transportation issues getting southwestern North Dakota veterans to and from medical care appointments, and issues restricting some area veterans from receiving VA benefits for prescription drugs.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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