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Business booming at veteran's office

While some veterans come back from serving overseas and have few issues, there are large numbers that need help.

The Becker County Veterans Service Office keeps busy, as the number of people coming through the door has shot up in recent years.

Office manager Mary Lou Schmit said the number of veterans seeking services has increased by 30 percent over the past three years.

Out of 4,000 veterans in Becker County, Schmit said 2,700 veterans were served last year.

"We don't expect it to level off much," Schmit said.

The largest group of veterans served in the Vietnam War, Schmit said.

Increasingly, though, more veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are coming through the office in the Becker County Courthouse.

New guidelines have made it easier for Vietnam-era veterans to receive services. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs presumes that several disabilities that Vietnam vets have came from exposure from Agent Orange.

The Veterans Service Office fulfills a unique role in helping veterans receive service. It doesn't provide services directly, but connects veterans to a variety of help.

"We're mandated by the state to operate under federal law through the county," Schmit said.

The greatest need in the coming years will be in mental health, Schmit said. In addition to that, there are other medical conditions that are growing at an astronomical rate.

"The growth in orthopedic services is going to be exponential," she said.

All services provided through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs goes through Fargo. Despite the distance to the regional hospital, Schmit said it isn't an issue.

All VA applications and claims go through Fargo, and the lines of communication are good, Schmit said.

"It's excellent, considering everything is out of Fargo," she said.

Locally, a counselor from Fargo comes to Detroit Lakes a few times per month, and there are post-traumatic stress disorder support groups. The VA also contracts out to Lutheran Social Services among others, for counseling services.

From the 15 years Schmit has worked at the Veterans Service office, she said the support the military gives to its veterans has vastly improved.

"It's grown by leaps and bounds," she said.

Service members returning from deployment or after being discharged are encouraged to visit their local veterans service office, Schmit said.

The goal is to help veterans as quickly as possible.

Some returning veterans don't get services right away.

"They head back to work and take care of their families," Schmit said. "Sometimes, those mental health needs are put on a back burner."

Besides mental and physical needs, family services are an issue for deployed soldiers as they are away from their families for an extended length of time.

"It's really difficult for the family," Schmit said.

Becker County provides funding for the Veterans Service office, with many items, including office computers, being purchased through grant funds.

There are many private organizations that help with veteran's issues as well. Some groups operate resorts for disabled veterans and their families.

A new one, called Project New Hope, is a retreat in McGregor near Mille Lacs Lake for veterans and their families.

The trials that veterans experience, including committing suicide in some instances, have been an issue nationally.

Unlike other regions of the country, Schmit said she wasn't aware of any locally based soldiers that have committed suicide.

The Veterans Service Office doesn't recommend one program over another, the employees try to get the message out.

The goal is to keep veterans informed.