Economy overshadows veteran’s forum

Chip Cravaack, Jim Rostberg, Sean Nienow, Roger CrawfordLuke Reiter

Aging and disabled military veterans in Isanti County face a variety of unique challenges in day-to-day life, but increasingly it seems those challenges can be traced back to an all-too common source: the lingering symptoms of the economic recession.

Concerns about the economy dominated an open forum on veteran’s issues held on Monday, March 7, at the American Legion in Cambridge. The forum, which featured U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, State Sen. Sean Nienow, State Rep. Roger Crawford and Isanti County Veteran’s Service Officer Jim Rostberg, was structured in a Q-and-A format and allowed audience members to comment on a range of issues.

In their opening remarks the legislators all mentioned the budget imbalances they were facing and they returned to the subject frequently throughout the night, asking the audience to be understanding during the difficult process.

“The 800 pound gorilla down at the capitol this year is the budget and how to reconcile that deficit,” Nienow said.

Nienow explained that many veteran benefits, such as a tax exemption on retirement payments, are well-regarded by both parties but in order to be enacted the expense would have to be balanced out elsewhere.

Cravaack stressed the magnitude of the federal deficit and how difficult it would be to fix, even if congress were to ignore a national debt of $14 trillion.

“But with saying that, we do not balance our budget on the back of our veterans who have served the country,” Cravaack said. “So I guarantee you that I will be fighting for veteran’s benefits in the future.”

As an example, Cravaack pointed out that the Department of Veteran’s Affairs currently has 750,000 claims pending, a figure he  called “completely unacceptable.” Cravaack said he would work on a program to modernize and streamline the department to prevent veterans from being denied benefits.

Much of the night’s discussion centered on the lack of cost-of-living increases in military pensions and the quality and cost of care at V.A. hospitals, however questions overflowed into a number of subjects, including immigration, gas prices, the prison system, a proposed national high-speed rail system and alternative solutions for the state budget.

“We, as veterans, if we don’t speak our mind and tell the people that we elect to office what we want, they don’t know,” said Bob Potts, a Navy veteran and co-organizer of the forum. “And that means meetings like this, writing them a letter, sending them an e-mail, calling up, the only way they know what we need and what we want is to communicate with them,”

The legislators invited veterans to contact them in the future with concerns and pledged to fight for their benefits, however in closing they again urged the crowd to have patience.

“If you get mad at some cuts or something like that, all I ask you to do is pull out a wallet if you’ve got a picture of your grandkids or your kids and say, ‘Do I have enough courage to say no, that I don’t want to put this on your back?’” Cravaack said. “Because they’re the ones who are going to be paying for it for the rest of their lives.”