Dan Tengwall took awhile to find his footing after his Minnesota National Guard deployment to Iraq in 2009 and 2010. He felt lost, anxious and depressed. He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. Even today, he goes to counseling at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.
One way to cope: dedicating himself to helping other veterans. As the Carver County veterans service officer, Tengwall's new mission became assisting fellow Minnesota veterans get benefits they are eligible for, such as education through the GI Bill, home loans with no money down or health care through the VA.
Starting Thursday, Tengwall will help Minnesota veterans who served in federal service during the post-9/11 wars receive a service bonus that's a centurylong Minnesota tradition.
Minnesota veterans who served between Sept. 11, 2001, and August 2021, when U.S. troops left Afghanistan, may apply for new service bonuses that were part of the Veterans Omnibus Bill passed this legislative session.
Those activated for federal service after 9/11 are eligible for a one-time $600 bonus. Those who served in a combat zone are eligible for a $1,200 bonus, while Gold Star families — the beneficiary of a veteran who died in federal service — are eligible for a $2,000 bonus.
The bonuses are available for two years or until the $24.8 million approved by the Legislature runs out. The Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, which handles the applications, encourages veterans to connect with county veteran service officers for questions.
Tengwall is excited to help veterans get financial help during tough economic times, and he believes there's symbolic power in showing appreciation for the small percentage of Minnesotans who served during the post-9/11 wars. About 45,000 Minnesotans have served in combat zones since 9/11, or less than 1% of the state's population.
But Tengwall and other veteran advocates say the most important part of the bonuses isn't the money. It's getting younger veterans connected to the system and strengthening a community of people who understand serving in America's longest wars. When Tengwall helps a veteran apply, he'll ask about other service-related issues, such as health problems that could stem from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This isn't just a bonus — this is an opportunity for veterans to take that step and make that connection," Tengwall said. "It's an opportunity to reach out to populations we haven't seen before, get them in our system, get them registered and see what else they qualify for."
Minnesota has awarded veteran service bonuses after every major conflict since World War I.
"Our veterans aren't always thanked as they should be," said Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, a Marine Corps veteran who co-sponsored the Veterans Omnibus Bill. "You look at the other provisions in the bill, we went hard at veterans homelessness issues. We also had a fairly robust suicide-prevention proposal. All of it tied together as a way to say thank you."
Ecklund knows the importance of getting connected. He filed his discharge papers with his county veterans service office when he left the Marine Corps in 1979 — then didn't visit again for 20 years. When he did, he learned his hearing loss may have been related to being a radio operator in the artillery. That earned him $170 a month in benefits.
"This war in some ways has been one of the more painful ones because of its length and the number of people who survived with lifelong impacts," said Rep. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven. "I'm always impressed with how veterans take care of each other. Those who haven't gotten plugged into that yet will be happily surprised. I've seen again and again veterans recover from war injuries, physical and psychological, by helping others."
One caveat for the bonuses: Veterans must have joined the military in Minnesota and live in the state now.
While the bonuses stem from the end of the post-9/11 wars, their timing comes after an especially busy period stateside, with the Minnesota National Guard called after George Floyd's murder as well as during the pandemic.
"It's not a part-time job anymore; it's a three-quarters-time job," said Kathy Marshik, an Iraq War veteran and the veteran service officer in Morrison County, home to Camp Ripley. "People are getting pulled away from their lives again and again and again."
Tengwall will get a $1,200 bonus. He presumes most veterans will use their bonuses for everyday things: paying bills, putting it toward a big-ticket item, going on vacation. Tengwall has a different plan. He'll donate most of his $1,200 to Mandatory Fun Outdoors, a nonprofit that takes veterans on outdoor experiences to foster camaraderie and healing.
It's an organization that's helped him work through his own challenges. He'll be heading on a fishing trip Up North this weekend with 13 other veterans.
"I get so much out of that, not the fishing as much as just hanging with other veterans," Tengwall said.