WASHINGTON - So many veterans carry invisible wounds of war - and it's not only veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, 65 percent of veterans who died by suicide in 2014 were older than 50, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Too many of these veterans' heroic stories end in tragedy, but we can change that.
The new Grand Forks Vet Center that I helped secure in May can help veterans get the care they need, and it can help us tell a different story - a story of hope for combat veterans and their families. These are folks who risked everything to protect us, and the new five-day Vet Center in Grand Forks will help uphold our obligation to support veterans when they return home.
My push to bring this Vet Center to Grand Forks began last year. In November, I urged VA Secretary Robert McDonald to open a Vet Center for this part of the state, explaining how veteran homelessness has risen in North Dakota even as it has dropped nationwide, which indicates serious unmet mental health needs among veterans in our community.
And the 2016 spending bill included a provision I supported to add $15 million for readjustment counseling in rural areas, which helped make the case for a Vet Center in Grand Forks.
VA agreed to my request in May, opening a five-day Vet Center in Grand Forks just after Memorial Day. VA will evaluate how well-used the Vet Center is after six months of operation, so it's vital that we spread the word and make sure veterans take advantage of counseling and readjustment services to show that the Vet Center is making a difference.
We want to keep this Vet Center in Grand Forks, and we need Herald readers' help to make that possible.
Given the number of combat veterans in Grand Forks, it made sense to bring a Vet Center to the region. The majority of the state's more than 7,000 post-9/11 veterans have settled in Grand Forks or Minot, near our Air Force bases. More than 3,500 residents of Grand Forks and surrounding counties alone have deployed since 2001.
Now, combat veterans and family members in Grand Forks and its surrounding counties won't have to drive to Fargo to get Vet Center services.
The Vet Center in Grand Forks is located at 300 Cherry Street, in a space called The Link. It's open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and the phone number is 701-306-4669.
Already, I've heard from veterans in the region who are taking advantage of this new Vet Center. At least one group therapy session already is off the ground, giving veterans a space to see they're not alone and to tackle their challenges with others who understand what they're going through.
Vet Centers are such valuable resources because they offer something different from traditional VA facilities, though traditional facilities are also essential. Vet Centers offer a unique approach to counseling. Several counselors and staff are veterans themselves, which makes them particularly qualified to provide counseling and mental health support to the veteran community.
Vet Centers also provide services for spouses and family members. It's so important to remember that when a veteran is struggling, he or she often is not struggling alone. A veteran's challenges can have very real impacts on spouses and families.
Expanding access to Vet Center services in Grand Forks from one day a week to five days - as I long pushed for - can dramatically improve the lives of combat veterans and their families. Individual, group and couples counseling services at the Vet Center already are helping heal veterans and their families.
It's on all of us to make sure veterans, servicemembers and their families know this Vet Center is a place to go. And it's up to us to eliminate the stigma associated with seeking help, so we can guarantee all of our brave veterans get the care and support they've earned.
Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.