MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- A small auditorium full of veterans and those who deal with them on a daily basis gathered Monday to encourage a trio of U.S. senators to fight for them.
"Congress needs to step forward and provide a budget that can provide stability for veterans programs," said Jeff Olson, commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
Randy Petzel, director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs region that includes Minnesota and the Dakotas, said preliminary numbers show those states could come up $20 million to $24 million short this year.
"I'll just very unsubtlely say it's going to be a difficult year for us," he told Sens. Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
If those budget numbers don't get a boost, officials will have to look at ways to curtail the numbers of people served, he said. It also could mean not opening as many community-based clinics as had been planned and downsizing the workforce through attrition.
Petzel said he expected there might be some additional funding in connection with emergency preparedness.
Patricia Schon, chairwoman of the United Veterans Legislative Council, already has lost a father and a husband who were veterans.
She says her son-in-law, also a veteran, has Agent Orange and she wants to make sure he receives adequate care through the veterans hospitals.
"I pray every day of my life that my daughter won't be a widow taking care of these children as I was when my husband died," she said.
Schon believes the country has largely forgotten about its veterans.
"We are giving you that torch -- please take it back to Washington," she told the Democratic senators.
The lawmakers said they would push for more funding, including for a homeless veterans bill that has been stalled in the Senate.
The Heather French Henry Homeless Veterans Assistance Act, named for last year's Miss America, would provide outreach to veterans at risk of becoming homeless and support for veterans who are homeless, strengthen Veterans Affairs transitional housing, and expand a federal program aimed at assisting homeless veterans find jobs.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the legislation would cost about $900 million over six years, should Congress approve the funding necessary for health care and other provisions.
The bill passed the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously this summer.
"If there is one thing that I hope unites Republicans and Democrats ... it ought to be addressing the homeless veterans we have all across this country," Daschle said.
Ashley H. Grant may be reached at agrant(at)ap.org.
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