DAV of Minnesota Transportation Coordinators are quick to say our transportation program changes and saves lives, but it truly does. We talk each year about the tens of thousands of miles driven and thousands of Minnesota Veterans who received rides, but we often don’t share the stories of specific moments we know the program is doing what it was meant to do, and how we continue to ensure no Veteran has to neglect their health because they cannot afford transportation.
On Friday May 14th, 2021 a Minnesota County Veteran Service Officer (CVSO) received a phone call, often too familiar, about a resident Veteran who had been discharged from a local VA Medical Center after a recent drug overdose, alone, with no one knowing where he was. This Veteran, like so many others, carries invisible wounds of battle from his service and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol and struggles with mental health. Throughout the night, the CVSO worked to stay in touch with the Veteran’s family and local contacts, just trying to track him down and ensure he was safe. Well into the evening of May 14th the CVSO finally received a call from the Veteran, and they started making plans to change his life. The CVSO worked with VA staff and social workers to secure the Veteran a space at a VA treatment facility that coming week where he would get the tools to overcome his drug and alcohol addiction and lay the ground work for bettering his mental health.
But how was the Veteran supposed to get himself to that facility, located 9 hours away and over 550 miles? This task is daunting to say the least for a healthy person. The CVSO team decided if push came to shove, they would personally drive the Veteran to the facility. They reached out to a DAV of Minnesota Transportation Coordinator to find out if there was any assistance available. DAV of Minnesota Department staff volunteered their department vehicle for the occasion, to ensure VA regulations didn’t get in the way of the veteran getting the help they needed and a volunteer driver rose without hesitation stating “YES, I will drive him!” The CVSO team ensured the Veteran was housed over the weekend in a local motel, even ordering him pizza to make certain he had food and made plans to leave that coming Monday to the facility.
On Monday May 17th, 2021 the CVSO and volunteer met the Veteran, who was not in a lucid state of mind struggling with hallucinations and effects of drug and alcohol use. After a few difficult moments the volunteer driver, a veteran himself, took firm, yet compassionate, control of the situation and stated “OK, I’ve heard enough, lets get on the road” and they started on their 9-hour drive. After a few hours in the vehicle the Veteran confessed to the volunteer if they hadn’t been able to get him to the facility, he had planned on ending his life. During the many hours in transit the Veteran and volunteer connected. They shared stories of their time in service, families, youth, struggles and goals. The Veteran came to trust the volunteer so much, at one point he asked him to pull over and admitted he had alcohol in his suitcase he would like to get rid of before they got to the facility. These men stood next to each other, on the side of a desolate road, and dumped out the bottles ceremoniously as the Veteran stated “No more.”
Nearly 18 Veterans die by suicide each day. This is the number recently released by the VA in their 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. The abuse of alcohol or drugs is second to depression as the most frequent risk factor for suicidal behavior. Because of the kindness and steadfastness shown by the Minnesota CVSO and DAV Volunteer this veteran did not become another somber statistic and is able to fight another day. Because of thecompassion and humanity shown, this Veteran’s children will still have their father and his wife will still have her husband. Our transportation program is so much more than simply giving rides to VA appointments and our volunteers are beyond basic drivers.
Faribault native Joe Skodje celebrated an incredible milestone. On March 30th, he is celebrated his 100th birthday! 2LT Joseph Skodje served as an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II.
“It was a beautiful day on the prairie near Fort Ransom, North Dakota. I was visiting the farm homes of my stepmother’s brother and sister. Arriving home at 808 7th Street North, Fargo, I found a telegram waiting for me: “Report to the OQMC in Washington, D.C. without delay!” (Office of the Quartermaster General). So ended my day – Sunday, December 7 in 1941! PEARL HARBOR!!”
These are a few sentences of Joseph Skodje’s Memoirs of World War II. From Washington D.C., he traveled to Minneapolis and applied for and was accepted into the Army Air Corps. He went on to become a pilot and spent time training in San Antonio, TX, Stamford, TX, Garden City, KS, Ellington Field in Houston, TX, Bergstrom Field, Austin, TX, Grenada, MS, Alliance, NE, and Fort Wayne, IN. In England, he was assigned to the 442 Troop Carrier Squadron and flew in the Invasion of Holland.
After the war, Joe went on to earn a degree in Engineering from the University of North Dakota. He and his wife, Helen, lived in Minneapolis before relocating to Clearwater, FL with their growing family which included 3 children. Joe worked for Honeywell as an industrial and safety engineer.
In 100 years, he has had time to have a lot of interests. He, along with Helen, were involved with many organizations which involved their kids. They also traveled extensively in both the United States and other worldwide destinations.
In the fall of 2018, Joe left Florida and relocated to Faribault, MN to be near his son. He often jokes that people do not typically move from Florida north during retirement!
Today, Joe is still active in working with photographs, zoom meetings, current events discussions, email and talking with friends and family by phone. He also grows flowers on his windowsill. With the cooped-up life of Covid, he has even given in and been known to enjoy a game of Bingo – just to be around people!Thank you for your service Joe, and we wish you a happy 100th birthday!
I am reaching out to provide you with an update on where we are at the state level for this year, so far.
I had a busy early session at the state level with a lot of testifying, however it doesn’t appear this will be a very successful year for many of the VSO supported initiatives. When I was asked prior to this year my thoughts on the session, I gave an honest assessment that in a budget year, during a pandemic, with a divided Government (House and Gov different party than Senate) I didn’t expect to get much traction.
The House and Senate have both passed from their Veterans Committees what their versions of the military and Veteran’s portion of a future omnibus bill. Here is a quick side-by-side for you all:
Veterans Services Budget
- Senate version $79,851,000 for Veterans Affairs
- House version $84,168,000 for Veterans Affairs
The biggest differences here are:
- The Senate has $750,000 for Veterans Homelessness Initiative and the House has $3,165,000 for the same.
- The Senate has $112,000 for the 9/11 Task Force and the House has $500,000 for the same.
Veterans’ Healthcare Budget
- The Senate version has $60,633,00 and the House version $62,120,000.
- These are the funds used to operate the Veterans Homes and their programs.
- The House version includes the language from the Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA), the Senate version does not.
- The VRJA is supported by all member organizations of the CTF, and would give Veterans a chance to get treatment for their service-connected mental health issues when they start to get into legal trouble.
- Both versions would make the first Saturday of every October Veterans Suicide and Awareness Day.
- The Senate version includes language to make a flag flown over the Capitol available to family members of service members killed in the line of duty, the House version does not.
- Both versions make some technical changes to the MN GI Bill, authorizing MDVA to provide Adult Day Healthcare and Dental services.
As you can see, there will definitely be some work to be done in an eventual Conference Committee. Unfortunately, it does not look like either chamber is currently planning on passing a Military and Veterans Omnibus, and instead we will be wrapped up in whatever partisan fight these two chambers decide to have over an even larger monstrosity of an omnibus bill. The DAV MN, along with our partners continues to push for a standalone omnibus for Veterans.
Veterans Week of Advocacy
Next week we will have the first “Veterans Week of Advocacy” here in Minnesota. Essentially it is an expansion on the previous Veterans Day on the Hill. Mostly it will consist of messaging to the public about what we want to see done at the state and federal level. I hope to have it grow into a much bigger event, but this year we are just proving some concepts and laying the groundwork. In the future I hope to have a Veterans Week of Advocacy that includes a huge rally at the Capitol as a part of it.
If you are not already, I strongly encourage everyone to sign up for the DAV’s Commanders Action Network which can be found here: https://www.dav.org/learn-more/legislation/join-action-network-take-action/
This is also the go-to place for federal updates. Once you are signed up for DAV CAN, you will occasionally get emails asking you to send a message to your Representative or Senator, it takes 30 seconds after your signed up and it lets our members of Congress know we want our priorities acted on.
I am also asking members across Minnesota to contact their State Senators and State Representatives to voice a couple of priorities for the end of session. Here is an example of how that message can go,
“Hi I am (Your Name) a constituent from (where you live) and I am asking (Representative or Senator So-and-so) to ensure they do everything within their power to ensure this is the year the Veterans Restorative Justice Act SF116 and included in HF 752 passes, and that Veterans issues be separated from all the partisan fighting and moved the floor as a standalone omnibus.”
That simple of a message, if they ask any questions you aren’t prepared to answer respectfully ask that they reach out to DAV MN’s Legislative Director Trent Dilks at 651-291-1212 for further details. It is nice if you can speak to the member, but their Legislative Assistant can most definitely pass along the message or left on a voicemail is fine.
If you aren’t sure how to contact your state level lawmakers you can find their information by entering your address here: https://www.gis.leg.mn/iMaps/districts/
Please let me know if you have any questions.
Trent C Dilks
Disabled American Veterans, Dept. of MN