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New program will help tribal veterans get benefits

Duane Columbus, a Bois Forte tribe member, nearly died when he was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade in 1969 in Vietnam.

For 30 years he tried unsuccessfully to get benefits. But then he met Alan Ellenson.

Ellenson, who then worked with Beltrami County, offered to help Columbus work toward getting benefits and assisted him in filling out paperwork.

"I was hesitant," Columbus said, explaining that offers of help in the past hadn't produced any results.

But this time it was different. Ellenson worked with Columbus throughout the entire process, and Columbus eventually began receiving the benefits to which he was entitled.

They developed a friendship and began having coffee in downtown Bemidji. Columbus thought other tribal veterans could benefit from help in understanding the benefits and filling out paperwork.

Columbus soon began advocating for legislation that would fund positions in each Minnesota tribe. Others soon came on board, including Rocky Cook from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. They began traveling to different reservations and tribal councils promoting the idea.

Their work paid off. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the $170 million Agriculture and Veterans Omnibus Bill on May 4 - and it included $750,000 to create the Tribal Veterans Service Office and fund its staff.

Ellenson was then named Tribal Division supervisor with the Department of Veteran Affairs. He will supervise the program and also train and supervise six tribal services officers, who will each serve one reservation in Minnesota, and two service officers in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The program is the first of its kind in the nation, Ellenson said.

"This is an opportunity to really make history as a state," he said. "The rest of the nation is really watching us."

The program is needed because many native veterans are confused by the paperwork and don't know which benefits they are eligible for, Columbus said.

"I know what those guys are going through," he said. "They get frustrated."

The open positions are posted on the State of Minnesota job site at

Once hired, officers will worked with American Indian veterans and their dependents to educate them about state and federal veterans' benefits, and initiate or reopen claims, according to the job description. Applicants must be Minnesota residents, U.S. citizens and veterans of the armed forces, according to the job description.

Positions are in Nett Lake (for the Bois Forte tribe), Grand Rapids (Grand Rapids), Cass Lake (Leech Lake), White Earth (White Earth), Red Lake (Red Lake), Granite Falls (Upper Sioux), Minneapolis and St. Paul. The officers for the Bois Forte and Grand Portage tribes will be required to conduct community outreach to the American Indian veterans in the Duluth area.

Columbus said having dedicated officers for each tribe is significant as some veterans are not comfortable talking with people they don't really know.

"It will be good to have someone on each reservation," he said. "They will get to know them and open up to them."

Ellenson's office is in downtown Bemidji.

"Bemidji is kind of centrally located," he said. "(The state) said it was OK, since there are seven Chippewa tribes in the northern part (of Minnesota)."

The program, while aiming to secure benefits for tribal veterans, may also prove to be therapeutic, Ellenson said.

"They'll talk about their experiences, struggles, what they went through," he said. "It will be an opportunity to really open up and share."