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Veteran caseload way up

The caseload at the Becker County's Veterans Service Office is up -- way up.

According to Veterans Service Officer Lauri Brooke, the caseload is up about 30 percent this year -- and it's not just new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan either.

"We're seeing a lot of veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam ... veterans who have never been in our office before," she said. "The increase is over the entire range of veterans (from World War II to Iraq)."

Though the area's aging veteran population can account for part of the increase, Brooke also attributes it to increased public awareness of the services and programs available for veterans.

"Part of (the reason for the increase) may be that our Korea and Vietnam veterans are aging and getting into the time of life where they may need more assistance -- but I can't attribute it to any one thing," Brooke said. "Maybe part of it is the exposure being given to our veterans by the media. I really believe we're (veterans service organizations) out there a lot more, talking about what we can do for our veterans.

"The benefits available to our veterans ... it wasn't something that was discussed very much (in generations past)," Brooke said. "Now, with all the media attention, we're talking about it more. I think it's awesome that (the increased attention) is opening up doors for those veterans who came back (from war) at a time that the environment wasn't as welcoming."

Brooke said that the quality of medical care available to veterans is also on the rise.

"The veterans here in Becker County that go to the VA Hospital in Fargo have had wonderful things to say about it," she said. "Our veterans are getting really good medical care and being treated respectfully, with great doctors."

The word of mouth regarding available veterans' programs and services is also spreading, Brooke noted.

"We get a lot of veterans who tell us, 'My buddy said I should come in here,'" Brooke said. "Plus, our local VFW, Legion, DAV and other veterans' organizations are also at the forefront in referring veterans here. They've done a great job of that."

One byproduct of this increased caseload has been the need for additional staffing. The Becker County Board of Commissioners just approved a proposal this past Tuesday to upgrade Veterans Service Office Manager Mary Lou Schmit from part-time to full-time status.

Previously, Schmit had divided her duties between the Veterans Service and Human Resources departments, spending three days a week at the VSO, and two days at human resources. Now, after a brief transition period, Schmit will begin spending five days a week at the VSO, while human resources will be getting a new part-time employee.

"I'm really glad that they (the commissioners) recognized the work that we're doing, and appreciated that the residents of Becker County would be served even better with her (Schmit) here full time," Brooke said.

"It (the increased caseload) has made us pretty busy, but we're not complaining. It's a good thing. That's what we're here for ... to serve the veterans of this county. We want to be busier."

And pretty soon, they'll be getting their wish. In late July, there will be 36 Minnesota National Guard members and an unknown number of other Armed Forces servicemen (and women) returning to Becker County, after completing their tour of duty in Iraq.

Brooke's role in their reintegration will begin almost immediately, as she will be among a group of county VSOs from around the state who will be traveling to Fort McCoy, Wis., to greet the first group of returning veterans.

"We'll get about a week's notice (before being sent to Fort McCoy)," she said. Since Schmit is the only other staff member in her office, Brooke noted, having her there full-time while she's in Wisconsin will be critical.

"It (making Schmit full-time) was great timing," Brooke said.

Brooke and her fellow VSOs will be getting a per diem -- paid by the state -- to go to Fort McCoy for a week.

"The county VSOs all got together and wrote a grant proposal, which was approved by the State Legislature during this session," Brooke explained. "We felt it was important to reach them (the returning veterans) before they came back home, and give them the information they will need (to receive needed services)."

Once their paperwork has been processed, the veterans will be referred to the VSOs in their home counties for follow-up, she added.

To further aid in the veterans' transition back to civilian life, Detroit Lakes will be hosting a program, "Combat and Operational Stress Reaction in Afghan and Iraqi War Veterans," on June 19.

Though the location is still to be finalized, the program will take place from 9-11 a.m., and will be offered at no cost

Police, fire, EMT and mental health professionals will also be given an opportunity to earn continuing education credits for attending the program, which is co-sponsored by Becker County, the City of Detroit Lakes, and the Western American City-County Cooperative.

Topics covered will include post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, combat stress, and more. For further information on this and other programs and services for area veterans, contact the Becker County Veterans' Service Office at 846-7412, or 1-888-260-0580 (toll free).

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454