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Honoring our nation's veterans

Each year on Veterans Day (Nov. 11), Americans join together to honor the men and women in uniform who have served and sacrificed for our country.

Last year on Veterans Day, I was in northern Minnesota in the town of Wadena, only a few months after a devastating tornado tore through the community.

We were gathered in the gymnasium at the Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary School, when the children got up and performed "American Anthem," a song from the recent PBS documentary series about World War II.

The lyrics begin like this:

All we've been given by those who came before

The dream of a nation where freedom would endure

The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day

What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?

Let them say of me I was one who believed

In sharing the blessings I received.

Let me know in my heart when my days are through

America, America, I gave my best to you.

So, there we were: In an elementary school gym. Four months after a tornado had turned Wadena upside down. Surrounded by veterans who had given so much for this country. And these young school kids were singing their hearts out.

It was an amazing patriotic spirit that I will never forget. It also reminded me of the same spirit that inspired more than 400,000 Minnesotans to serve our country in the armed forces.

These veterans deserve our respect not just one day a year, but every day.

Of special note are Minnesota members of the National Guard who have served since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

In the past, National Guard units were typically called up for short-term deployments to help with natural disasters. Since 9/11, however, more than 22,000 Minnesota Guard members have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan for extended periods.

Many of these citizen-soldiers have been deployed multiple times.

The impact has been especially dramatic in Minnesota because we have the fifth largest National Guard contingent in the country, even though we rank just 21st in total population.

The impact has hit our rural communities the hardest because they provide a disproportionately large number of men and women who serve in our military.

During my time in the Senate, supporting our veterans has always been among my top priorities. This includes constituent service to help cut bureaucratic red tape so veterans get the benefits they deserve.

It also means fighting for legislation to fulfill America's promise that we will care for our soldiers when they return home.

In recent years, we have provided historic funding increases to ensure top-quality health care for America's veterans.

We also passed the Post-9/11 GI Bill to expand educational benefits for veterans who have served in the past decade.

The first GI Bill, adopted after World War II, transformed our nation and helped build a strong middle class by providing nearly eight million veterans with health, housing and educational benefits.

Our veterans today deserve no less.

But there is more work to be done to support our veterans. Consider two shocking facts.

First fact: The unemployment rate for Minnesota veterans who have served since 9/11 is nearly 23 percent, the third highest in the nation. It is almost double the national average and more than three times the state's overall unemployment rate.

Second fact: An estimated 700 Minnesota veterans are homeless on any given night. During the course of the year, an estimated 4,000 Minnesota veterans will experience an episode of homelessness or a crisis that could lead to homelessness.

This is not right.

To help unemployed veterans, I am cosponsoring the Hiring Heroes Act and the Veterans Employment Transition Act to encourage the hiring of veterans.

To help homeless veterans, I have introduced the Helping Our Homeless Veterans Act to ensure that our veterans get the housing, job training and counseling services they need.

As the song says, veterans have given their best for our country. Now we have an obligation to give them our best - on Veterans Day and every day.