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U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs meets with Bemidji area veterans

Secretary Denis McDonough was invited to northern Minnesota, where he held a town hall to meet with the region’s veterans on May 20.

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Alon Roy, White Earth Nation secretary and treasurer, speaks during a town hall on Friday, May 20, 2022, at the Bemidji Eagles Club.
Nicole Ronchetti / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Veterans from across northern Minnesota came together for an early morning town hall with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough in Bemidji on Friday, May 20.

Invited by the White Earth Tribal Council to tour the area, McDonough came to Bemidji to hear from local veterans about different programs being run that he hopes can be recreated in other veteran communities across the country.

“I wanted to come here because there’s something special going on here,” McDonough said. “It speaks to the commitment from this community, from these tribes, from this state.”

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Denis McDonough, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, speaks during a town hall on Friday, May 20, 2022, at the Bemidji Eagles Club.
Nicole Ronchetti / Bemidji Pioneer

This led to the organization of the town hall in Bemidji, which took the time to introduce McDonough to the success of the local Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Support Club that is available for veterans.

Various club members at the event shared what the group has meant to them, and how it has changed their lives for the better.

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“It turned out to be a turning point in my life,” said John Pearce, who joined after he met with Grant Bauer, a former counselor at the Bemidji VA Clinic. “(He) saved my life, and saved all of our lives.”

Started in 2008 by three veterans, the support group now includes around 30 members who meet multiple times a week.

“The meetings are the high points of the week for many veterans,” said Larry Djernes, a veteran and member of the support group.

The club has proven to be a vital line of support for the region’s veterans, providing a space for them to connect with each other, grow friendships, share experiences and stay active in their communities.

Last year alone the club raised more than $30,000 for veterans, and in the past it has hosted events to raise awareness about issues like veteran suicide.

“We stay active, which is the key,” Pearce said. “We’re going to keep on doing that.”

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Veterans from the community gather at a town hall to meet with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough on Friday, May 20, 2022, at the Bemidji Eagles Club.
Nicole Ronchetti / Bemidji Pioneer

Another key aspect of the club is that it’s veterans supporting veterans, something that Pearce said the group was working on extending to younger veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“They’re going through what we went through,” Pearce said, “a war that nobody cares about and nobody remembers.”

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Some issues specific to Indigenous veterans were also discussed, such as how generational trauma can complicate a veteran’s experience of military related PTSD.

“We face a lot of things that stem back a couple hundred years with the military,” said Robert Durrant, a veteran from White Earth Nation. “We face these kind of issues all the time, because the atrocities were passed on to us.”

Moving forward

As McDonough heard from the veterans gathered at the event, he expressed a desire to try to replicate these programs so that other veteran communities could also benefit.

“I think a lot of what you’ve had to say is applicable in communities across the country,” McDonough said. “As I said, there’s something special here.”

Veterans also shared with the secretary what they would like to see locally, such as a regional VA office located in Bemidji, a way to help veterans be able to get to the support club’s meetings, and the addition of another mental health specialist at the clinic.\

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A Veteran takes the podium to speak during a town hall on Friday, May 20, 2022, at the Bemidji Eagles Club.
Nicole Ronchetti / Bemidji Pioneer

“The veterans I’ve seen throughout this region have sometimes had to overcome barriers to receive their care,” Bauer said. “Sometimes it helps just to gather and hear what our health care is like for veterans.”

McDonough agreed to look into different local possibilities, and seemed hopeful that some of the ideas brought forward during the town hall could be beneficial to veterans across the country.

“We’ll see what we can do on that,” McDonough said. “You continue to do us a great service as you take care of each other, to see this up close is really moving.”

Related Topics: VETERANS
Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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