Over pizza, salad, and cupcakes with the red bullseye ringed in frosting, several dozen representatives from the veterans community gathered at Target’s northern campus in Brooklyn Park on a September day. They came from Medtronic and Securian Financial. They came from Operation Homefront and Military OneSource. Their goal was to get Minnesota businesses and nonprofits working together, in an organized way, to support our state’s 325,000 veterans.
This inaugural meeting of the Minnesota Military & Veteran Exchange (MNME) was long in coming—I first heard about it taking shape last November, when I met Allison Alstrin of veterans resource group Project Got Your Back at a TCB panel discussion on veterans in the workplace. TCB started that annual event, and corresponding magazine coverage, nearly a decade ago, when Minnesota had the ninth-highest unemployment rate in the country for post-9/11 vets and the second-worst disparity rate: In 2014, for example, non-veteran unemployment dropped to 3.8 percent, while unemployment among vets hovered at 11.1 percent.
Today, that disparity has disappeared. Unemployment is below 3 percent across the board. For veterans, that’s due in part to the focused efforts of many local military support organizations, as well as companies such as Best Buy, General Mills, Thrivent, and Xcel Energy, which all have their own employee resource groups for veterans. Galon Miller, a Vietnam vet, joined Target’s military resource council when he was working in the retailer’s IT department in the early 2000s. For Miller, that veterans group was the first time post-military service that he “experienced the camaraderie, devotion. I realized I had this pent-up desire to help other vets.”
At most companies with a military resource council, the group focuses on recruitment, retention, and engagement within. But companies weren’t consistently sharing best practices with each other until Miller established the Twin Cities Military Network. “All the boats rise when the tide goes up,” he says. He gives the example of Allianz Life deciding to pay employees’ full salary while they are on active duty. “Other companies heard that and said, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ ”
Now, MNME is taking that communication and coordination to the next level by bringing together companies and nonprofits. “Some of the hardest things happening right now are health-related,” Miller says. “Health issues may cause employment issues. And unemployment may cause homelessness, which may cause suicide.”
Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than are nonveterans. Minnesota’s veteran suicide rate among 35-to 54-year-olds is far higher than the national average: 45.6 per 100,000, compared with 33.1 nationally, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Alstrin says surveys show that half of local veterans don’t access available services, whether it’s mental health or housing or job training. In some cases, they haven’t received a VA diagnosis; in others, they’re worried about how others will see them. Still others don’t think it will help or don’t realize services are available.
“If veterans don’t have good health, they can’t be employed and may not have a good life,” Miller says. “It’s a call to action for everyone to pull together and work on veterans’ health—spiritually, emotionally, physically.”
"If veterans don’t have good health, they can’t be employed and may not have a good life. It’s a call to action for everyone to pull together and work on veterans’ health—spiritually, emotionally, physically.”
—Galon Miller, Twin Cities Military Network founder and veterans advocate
While TCB isn’t holding a veterans event this year, talking with Alstrin and Miller has illuminated just how much work there is to do, and how important it is to get all of the players working together. We talk so much these days about purpose and mission—no one is more purpose-driven than a member of the military. Something Miller said really resonated: One of the big struggles for veterans returning from service is not just reacclimating and getting a job, but finding that sense of purpose as a civilian. “The best therapy for a vet is to help another vet,” Miller says. “It helped me heal.”
With that first MNME meeting under their belt—an impressive feat of organization—Alstrin, Miller, and a small group of passionate organizers are working to coordinate the first statewide event, to take place next year. The goal is to bring thousands of Minnesota current military members and veterans to one place where they can enroll in benefits, connect with health services, learn about job opportunities, and more. Every year, at least 5,000 veterans come home to Minnesota, Miller says. “If we don’t have a network to connect them and make sure they’re getting plugged in, then we still have an issue.”
You can help. Visit mnme.us to get involved.