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Veterans await federal government shutdown resolution

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ST. PAUL — Two federal government shutdown episodes stand out for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.

One is families of military personnel killed in duty not receiving federal aid they were due. The other is World War II veterans, elderly men and women just off an airplane, not being allowed to see a new Washington, D.C. memorial in their honor.

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"Some people did not realize there are consequences to shutting down the government," Walz said.

Also upsetting to the southern Minnesota Democrat was House and Senate members of both parties removing blockades to the memorial, in front of reporters and television cameras, to make political statements.

"I have never been more disgusted than to see my colleagues" take advantage of a situation, he said. "It is just so dang frustrating."

A federal government shutdown passed the 11-day mark as the weekend began, idling 460,000 federal employees and cutting off services to many Americans. As talks to end the shutdown sputtered, the country’s veterans wondered what will become of their promised federal help.

Leslie Goodwin said that he has not heard much from the 3,000 veterans he serves in his northwest Minnesota’s Polk County veterans’ services office. He also has not heard much about the situation from veterans’ officials, instead counting on the Grand Forks Herald and other media to keep him informed.

"I always tell them, ‘Watch the news,’" he said is his advice to veterans.

Medical benefits should continue with little change during the shutdown, Goodwin said.

"Veterans will get their health care, veterans will be able to see their doctor," Walz said.

However, other federal veterans programs are beginning to run out of money and if the shutdown lasts much longer, federal checks may end.

The issue of not paying families $100,000 and flying them to where caskets arrive in Dover, Del., when someone in the military dies caught a lot of attention.

"That has made people absolutely wild and angry," U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy of northwest Wisconsin said. "It is absolutely imperative that we pay the families of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice."

A private organization now is paying families of military personnel who die on the job, expecting to be repaid once Congress and President Barack Obama agree on a new budget.

The Minnesota Veterans Affairs Department "remains open for business," Commissioner Larry Shellito said. "However, we are continuing to monitor the federal situation to determine the short- and long-term effects of the shutdown, and stand ready to assist veterans should needs arise."

While most impact on veterans would be felt later in October, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that thousands in his organization already have been furloughed, resulting in service delays.

For instance, Shinseki said, an average of 1,400 veterans every day experience delays in the review of benefit claims. That comes after what he called "significant gains" in reducing backlogs.

In his committee testimony, Shinseki gave a sampling of things veterans can expect by Nov. 1 if the shutdown continues:

E Claims processing for compensation, pension, education, vocational rehabilitation and employment benefits will be suspended.

E Nearly 5,600 veterans a day will not receive decisions on their disability claims.

E More than 3.8 million veterans no longer will receive compensation payments, including some with the most severe disabilities.

E Pension checks will stop for more than 315,000 veterans and 202,000 surviving family members.

E More than 500,000 veterans and active service members no longer will get education benefits.

E National cemeteries will reduce the number of burials, forcing families to pay for storage of remains.

In addition to veterans-specific programs, more than 600,000 veterans work in all areas and the federal government, with many affected by the shutdown.

Walz and Shinseki said that Congress cannot simply exempt the Veterans Administration from the shutdown’s impact. VA programs rely on any number of other federal agencies, such as the Labor Department Internal Revenue Service and Social Security.

In a Friday morning interview from Washington, Walz said: "It’s been overcast and rainy, and the weather fits the mood."

On the other hand, he added, a solution may be near.

"I get the feeling that this fever is about ready to break," Walz said.

Duffy is a rare Republican who publically says that he is willing to pass a shutdown-ending funding bill that would make no other changes.

Saying he comes from a family with 11 kids, "we work through our problems by talking, by communicating with each other," something federal officials should try.

"People for the most part, (say) ‘I want my government to work. I know you guys disagree, but dang it, sit down and talk,’" Duffy said of what he has heard from constituents of both political parties.

Changes are occurring as the shutdown continues.

The military is recalling most of its civilian employees after initially furloughing many. The National Park Service began allowing visitors to the World War II memorial after members of Congress raised so much noise about it closing.

In South Dakota, turnouts along a road that gave motorists a view of Mount Rushmore have reopened. And the governor there is looking at whether the state should temporarily take over running Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park.

In Minnesota, state lands will be open for the pheasant hunting opener, but federal lands remain closed. State parks around the country also are open, but not federal ones.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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