“No veteran left behind” was the message ringing through the American Legion Tuesday night, coming from a special guest advocating for more support for veterans at the legislative level and caring for one another as brothers and sisters in arms.
Paul E. Dillard, the American Legion national commander, visited the Owatonna American Legion Post 77 to talk with area veterans about how, as veterans, they can fight back against veteran suicide, boost membership at the post level and push United States senators to pass important legislation that directly benefits and supports veterans. The night was attended by about two dozen people, an legionnaires from Owatonna, Waseca and Blooming Prairie were present.
“You can pick up a paper today, and you will see 18, 20 or 22 veteran suicides a day, and regardless of that number, we do know that one is too many,” Dillard said to the crowd. “That is where our buddy checks come in.”
Dillard said that, as veterans, they have a duty and responsibility to check on one another, especially considering the difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic with quarantines and isolation.
“Depression sets in, loneliness, I got tired of that house myself,” Dillard said, adding that many veterans lost their jobs during the course of the pandemic. “And it gets to that point where you start to wonder, since you can’t fulfill your obligations, it is worth it?”
During his tour to various Legion posts throughout the country, Dillard said they have heard both good and bad stories regarding veterans trying to help their comrades through depression and thoughts of self harm. He encouraged every veteran to make sure they take the time to call and check on other veterans, saying that day “just might be the day” they are at their worst time, and to make sure they ask the other veteran if they are OK.
“We have to make sure our veterans are OK … Just that voice on the other end of the phone — that other veteran they are talking to — makes all the difference in the world,” Dillard said. “Try to get that veteran to give you 15 more minutes, one more hour, one more day — enough time until we can get them professional help.”
In addition to the buddy checks, Dillard spoke about a handful of the legislative priorities the National American Legion is focusing on during the current session. The most important one, according to Dillard, is the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — or PACT Act. The PACT Act aims to help toxic-exposed veterans by addressing the still lingering conditions and unrecognized locations of Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange, Atomic veterans and veterans from the K2 base in Uzbekistan. Dillard said it would also focus on the burn pits and improving the VA disability claim process.
The four main elements of the PACT Act include health care for toxic-exposed veterans; a concession of exposure to burn pits for veterans who served in certain locations; a list of presumptive conditions related to burn pit exposure; and a framework for VA to review and grant new presumptive conditions for all toxic exposures, past, present, and future. Additionally, the bill includes critical training necessary for VA health care providers to better diagnose and treat veterans with conditions related to toxic exposures and for VA disability claims processors to understand how to properly rate and adjudicate toxic exposure claims.
“This has already passed in the House … you need to call your two senators, whether you believe they will support it or not, and tell them the American Legion is paying attention to what is going on,” Dillard said. “These veterans need help bad.”
Among the other priorities for the American Legion, of which Dillard said there are 12, the Legion is also advocating for a bill that will provide more women-friendly VA clinics for mammograms and maternity care, an exemption pass for World War II veterans, and the Pay the Coast Guard Act, which will ensure Coast Guard personnel are paid in the event of a government shutdown and increase funding to eliminate the shore side backing by 2025.
Dillard also encouraged local Legionnaires to reach out to the younger generation of veterans and get them involved in the Legion programming, stating they are people “who want to do things active in the community.”
“Get them in and thank them for their service,” Dillard said. “Tell them it was worth it.”
Though there were many things Dillard promoted and highlighted as being important for Legionnaires to focus on, it was his “buddy check” push that reverberated the most in the room.
“We’re just buddies … Keep up that work, and we can save a life, one phone call at a time and one life at a time,” Dillard said. “Be the one that saves one.”