Mar 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm
ST. CLOUD, Minn. (KNSI) - Deployment is ebbing, and more service men and women are returning from combat every day. This has prompted one organization to travel around the U.S., and help communities collaborate to provide veterans with the services and support they need.
U.S. Army Colonel David Sutherland and Deputy Director Kim Mitchell, from the Donnie D. Dixon Center in Washington D.C., made a stop at the River's Edge Convention Center on Wednesday to lead a forum on the topic with St. Cloud representatives from the military, non-profit, education and business communities.
Sutherland and Mitchell spend 26 days of every month on the road, speaking and facilitating strategy sessions on education, employment and health care for military families.
The end goal, he says, is to create recognizable destinations in communities, or "rally points," where veterans know they can turn for support in everything from healthcare to legal advice.
St. Cloud was selected as a stop for the forum due to a growing rate of joblessness and veteran suicide in the area. According to statistics released by the National Alliance on Mental Health - St. Cloud, the rate of suicides for veterans between ages 18-24 rose 80 percent between 2004 and 2008.
Sutherland says, at a time such as this, it's crucial for the St. Cloud community to form alliances to provide support services for people who tend to shrink away from asking for help, even when they need it.
"The American people know what we are," Sutherland says. "They know we're at war in Afganistan, that we fought in Iraq. We're guard, active, reserve...but they don't know us. And so, to understand us and our unique needs, we need to gather at the community level."
Mitchell understands the concept of self-reliance better than most people. Adopted from a Vietnamese orphanage by her Air Force father, Mitchell grew up in a small northern Wisconsin town where she was always regarded as "different."
"It came up in 7th grade, when other students made a point of telling me I was not the same, that I couldn't be one of them" Mitchell says. "So what we talk about when we speak at these forums is how, quite often, our combat veterans feel the same way. They're asked, 'why are you not acting the same way? Why are you different?' And this can create a sense of isolation."
She says the structure, routine and work ethic gained from her upbringing compelled her to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy for college, leading to what she calls her "life's work" helping veterans and their families recognize that there is somewhere they can turn for help.
"We want to let them know there is someone they can come back to, who cares about what happens to their family," she says. "By helping communities form these partnerships, we can increase graduation rates from colleges, increase the number of jobs, and help veterans become leaders and CEOs. We are going to see these veterans and their families change the world we live in."
Sutherland says a mixture of services from civic and private organizations is imperative, and he's impressed by the turnout and level of discussion from St. Cloud area organizations on the topic.
"There is a sea of good will here in St. Cloud," he adds. "To align that support, you need leaders that are conduits with staying power - and that's exactly what we're seeing here with this convening."
According to Dixon Center statistics, around 25,000 military personnel have served in combat post-September 11.
The St. Cloud forum is co-sponsored by Goodwill/Easter Seals of Minnesota, and underwritten by the Newman's Own Foundation.