Minnesota has one of the nation's lowest ratios of community-based mental health centers for veterans. On Thursday, some of the state's most influential leaders pledged to change that.

"We are a nation that always finds the resources to send young men and women to war and somehow can't find the resources to take care of them when they get home," said U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., who is behind legislation aimed at finding ways to increase the number of the counseling centers — known as Vet Centers — in Minnesota.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is sponsoring the Senate's Vet Center bill.

The centers specialize in mental health services and readjustment counseling for veterans or active-duty personnel, National Guard members, reservists and their families. Minnesota has only two such providers in the Twin Cities and one in Duluth. The state hasn't seen a new Vet Center open in nearly a decade and, with roughly 327,000 veterans in the state, Minnesota's ratio of centers to veterans ranks among the worst in the nation.

"It's important to stop and pause and thank folks, but we've always said the best way we thank them is providing the services and commitment of this country," Gov. Tim Walz said Thursday.

Walz, a U.S. Army National Guard veteran, joined Klobuchar, Phillips, U.S. Rep. Angie Craig and Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke for a tour of the Vet Center in downtown St. Paul on Thursday.

Craig noted that the drive from her home in the Second Congressional District to the clinic took over an hour, underscoring the limited access to mental health and readjustment services for many veterans in the state.

Herke, a 30-year Army veteran, described his experience receiving help from a Vet Center as vital to his successful transition back to society after returning from combat. But he added that there is a gap in services readily available to veterans living in the northern, western and southern parts of the state.

Herke and Walz recently hailed an end to veteran homelessness in 13 central Minnesota counties. That leaves three of the state's 10 continuum of care networks — Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis counties — that have yet to achieve the administration's goal of wiping out veteran homelessness. A similar campaign to reduce veteran suicides is in the works. Herke noted that the state loses about 100 veterans to suicide each year.

"We also need to remember that day-to-day care that our veterans need and that's what this is about," said Klobuchar. "I think especially some of our vets that have returned from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Gulf War, this is going to be an especially smart move to add more of these Vet Centers and it's something we're working on right now."

For many of those gathered at the St. Paul Vet Center, the visit and occasion were personal. Klobuchar noted that Thursday marked the first Veterans Day spent without her father, Jim Klobuchar, a veteran of the Korean War who died earlier this year and who is now buried at Fort Snelling.

Phillips lost his father to the Vietnam War in 1969 when Phillips was just 6 months old.

Phillips' legislation, introduced before Memorial Day earlier this year, is intended to identify and study the barriers to building new Vet Centers in Minnesota and expand staff available to meet veterans' mental health needs in underserved areas.

"At the very least as Minnesotans and as Americans, we must build a bridge for veterans who serve this country and ensure our freedoms especially during such precarious times for democracy both here and around the world," Phillips said.

The four Republican members of Minnesota's congressional delegation did not respond to requests for comment.

Each shared messages of appreciation for veterans online. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., shared that he presented the Combat Action Badge to Iraq war veteran Warren Johnson. Stauber meanwhile is sponsoring bipartisan legislation to eliminate TRICARE Select enrollment fees for service members who retired before 2018 or cap fees for those who retired after that date.

Stauber said the fees had been imposed on veterans without much warning.

In late March, U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn, announced federal funding for proposed veterans homes she backed in Bemidji and Montevideo. "They are going to make a big difference for veterans and their families in our state," she said at the time.

Walz on Thursday suggested that Minnesota is due for more Vet Centers and that the state's connection to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, a Stillwater native, could help keep the state's needs on the federal government's radar.

McDonough visited Minnesota in May to tour the veteran health clinics around the state as part of the government's initiatives to better treat mental illness and end homelessness among veterans.

"This is an area that brings us together," Walz said. "For all of us who've served, my fellow veterans, one thing years later we always remember about our service is the sense of camaraderie and a unified mission."

smontemayor@startribune.com 612-673-1755 • Twitter: @smontemayor