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Bringing together veterans, VA officials to improve care

Heidi Heitkamp

As our country was preparing to celebrate Independence Day earlier this month, I traveled our state to hear the needs of our veterans. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to hear directly from veterans about how we can ensure they are receiving the support they were promised. From World War II vets to our young service members just home from Afghanistan, the information shared at our meetings was invaluable.

I brought top North Dakota Veteran Affairs officials on the tour so veterans could ask questions and voice concerns directly to VA leaders. I appreciate their open participation.

At a young age, I was taught to always honor our service members. When my father returned from World War II, he started the first VFW in Mantador. It was one of the smallest posts in the country, but it allowed Dad and his friends a place to discuss their experiences and organize efforts to improve policy for veterans. Our state has one of the highest rates of military service -- more than four times the national average. It is my honor to represent our brave veterans as a U.S. senator, and I will always work to fulfill our sacred commitment to those who have served our nation.

On my six-city tour, I heard from veterans from all walks of life who are facing many of the same day-to-day challenges. One of the top issues that came up was the difficultly our rural veterans face traveling to VA health centers. While our state has many dedicated volunteers to transport vets, the travel is often grueling. Some vets have to travel seven-plus hours, do chemotherapy, wait for other patients, then ride home the same day. As one who has experienced chemo, this is an incredibly difficult experience for veterans. It is clear that we need to expand vets' access to services at other hospitals, with the VA reimbursing the costs.

I also heard from many young vets who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These men and women repeatedly expressed the dire concerns about the ability to file insurance or disability claims. It is unacceptable to deny our service members their earned health care benefits simply because they have been discharged due to symptoms of PTSD. We need to honor our commitment to their service, and that includes the traumatic effects of their service.

Throughout the entire state, there is a lack of mental health care. In western North Dakota, the need is pronounced. Because of their incredible skills and work ethic, myself and others have encouraged young vets to come out and work on our state's energy development. We have a great demand for labor, and many vets are in need of good-paying jobs. However, we need to ensure that when they head out west, they have access to quality care. We need to both expand the VA's community-based outreach clinics and add more mental health professionals.

The last stop on my tour was at the Fargo VA. I huddled with leaders there to relay what I heard from North Dakota veterans. They were very receptive to many of the suggestions offered and have already committed to making improvements.

Fargo VA officials are dedicated to making the system work for vets, and I will work closely with them to make it better. My listening tour is just the beginning of my work to enhance the lives of North Dakota veterans.

A few folks on the tour said to me, "Heidi, how can we afford to pay for these services?" I replied, "How can we not afford it?" We promised our brave veterans quality care if they served our country, and now we need to live up to our commitments.

Heitkamp is a U.S. senator from North Dakota. She hosted meetings in Minot, Bismarck, Dickinson, Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Fargo during the Congressional District Work Period to discuss the challenges facing North Dakota veterans. Contact her at