The veteran's question was gruff and to the point as Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough stood before a gaggle of cameras and reporters Friday on a return trip to his home state.

The 20-year Navy vet had worked his way to the front of the crowd inside the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center's atrium and asked McDonough his plans for ending veteran homelessness and if he had met with veterans living in tent cities.

"Or are you going to chicken out about it?" he added.

That topic — and a renewed commitment to curbing suicide rates among veterans — spurred the Stillwater native's third trip, and first to Minnesota, since joining the Biden administration. He said Friday that his tour of VA centers was in direct response to the state's work in reversing longstanding trends of mental illness and homelessness among its veteran population.

"We treat every veteran, every single veteran as his or her own story and any single suicide that we now know is preventable is a tragedy," McDonough said. "So while I am not giving you a timeline or a specific number, I am telling you that we will only win this fight when we recognize that plain fact."

Gov. Tim Walz, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and Rep. Ilhan Omar joined McDonough earlier Friday for a tour of the Minneapolis VA facility before McDonough continued on to Hastings and Rochester. The secretary also visited St. Cloud a day earlier.

"It was like a miracle tour back there," Klobuchar said.

Omar recalled meeting a patient who served a tour in Somalia to help ensure that a 1993 food blockade that was causing a hunger crisis be ended. She said it was the first time she met a veteran who had served in her home country.

"This place is a lifesaver," Smith added. "To think about what that means, and the lives of the people who have given so much and now are able to be treated with the respect they deserve just fills my heart with a sense of pride and a sense of renewed purpose to remember the work that we still have to do."

Smith and Klobuchar have sponsored such legislation as proposals to better train VA health care providers to spot and treat illnesses related to exposure to burn pits or toxic substances — which Klobuchar vowed not to let become this generation's Agent Orange. Proposed legislation also would improve how the Department of Veterans Affairs processes post-traumatic stress disorder claims.

"To me, this is the signature, signature injury coming home from the war," Klobuchar said. "It is the signature condition that we are dealing with right now."

Smith also has proposed a bill to help veterans exposed to radiation.

McDonough, meanwhile, highlighted Minnesota's reduction in suicide rates among veterans in the past five years compared with a prior five-year period. Walz later said Minnesota is one of a handful of states engaging in a "governors' challenge" to pilot mental health initiatives aimed at ending veteran suicide.

"We can't rest until every veteran gets the mental health care and the help that they need," Walz said. "Zero needs to be that goal."

Minnesota has added new housing facilities for homeless veterans as part of the state's attempt to become the fourth in the nation to end veteran homelessness. Walz said the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the state's progress toward that goal. The governor originally hoped to end veteran homelessness in 2019, but his administration has continually pushed back that end date.

Walz also said he's optimistic that he will be able to sign a bill into law this year designed to redirect veterans in crisis from the criminal justice system to the VA system. The bill is part of public safety spending negotiations underway.

"That leads to better health care, job training and that prevents the homelessness in the first place." Walz said.

A veteran himself who served on the veterans affairs committee in Congress, Walz told the Navy vet who quizzed the group on homelessness that his question "goes to the core of who we are."

"This is an issue that unites this country and we need the issues that unite this country," Walz said.

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor