Minnesotan to serve as DAV commander for 2nd year, discusses pandemic challenges

A Minnesota man will lead the organization Disabled American Veterans (DAV) for another year. Stephen “Butch” Whitehead became the first Iraq War veteran to lead the charity in 2019.

He sat down with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS shortly after taking the position. Now, a year later, he said his perspective as a post-9/11 veteran has shaped his work as a DAV commander.

“It’s been very rewarding but very challenging at the same time,” said Whitehead.

He told KSTP he’s been advocating in Washington for legislation to help younger veterans.

“Really getting out there, talking about burn pits and making sure that gets into the legislators’ mind of how to get after this, instead of waiting like we did for the Vietnam veterans,” said Whitehead.

Burn pits were used to get rid of waste at military sites, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are concerns the toxins from the smoke created health risks and could have both short-term and long-term health effects.

The DAV is advocating for legislation that would reduce barriers for veterans seeking medical care related to burn-pit exposure.

“The veteran can get service-connected without having to pinpoint the exact location in the country, the exact time that veteran got exposed because it’s a toxin, just like the Agent Orange is,” said Whitehead. “We can’t wait for this 40, 50 years before we start passing bills so that has been a big motivation for me as I travel, finding these young veterans and letting them know we’re fighting for you.”

Less than a year after taking on the role, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The DAV adjusted by connecting veterans to benefits via e-mail, rather than in-person meetings. The organization also helped disabled service members adjust to telehealth appointments.

He said the pandemic also affected their transportation program because fewer veterans were going to the VA to see a doctor. They saw a reduction in available volunteer drivers as well.

“A lot of our volunteers just don’t feel comfortable coming back right now,” said Whitehead. “We’re having to do a big push, again trying to find those volunteers and making sure we have the right safety measures in place to make sure volunteers feel safe as well.”

To volunteer as a driver, click here.

Layoffs have been one of the biggest challenges disabled veterans have faced during the pandemic, according to Whitehead.

Unemployment among veterans 18 years old and older nearly doubled from October 2019 to October 2020, from 274 veterans to 438, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“That’s been a big one just like everyone in society,” said Whitehead. “So we stood up and actually did an emergency relief fund. Veterans have been able to apply for a grant if they were affected by COVID.”

He said they’ve been able to help thousands of veterans nation-wide through the program.

Whitehead told us they’ve also provided $15,000 in grants to the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV), which works to combat homelessness, to help veterans with mortgage payments, rent and other expenses.

“I think the big struggle we have right now in this homelessness is really finding that next means to a new start, a new beginning,” he said. “So a veteran has lost their job or they’re already struggling now this hit, getting out in front of them and letting them know the help is there.”

There are 308 veterans currently experiencing homelessness in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Homeless Veteran Registry Dashboard. According to Whitehead, stable employment is one of the biggest hurdles preventing veterans from acquiring stable housing.

He said they’ve been hosting virtual job fairs during the pandemic.

“We find those employers that are looking to hire people and we’re sponsoring it and pushing it out to veterans to say hey there’s opportunities out there, even in this pandemic there are people who are still trying to hire,” said Whitehead.

He told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS he’s encouraged by Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement on Wednesday that five of the state’s suburban metro counties have received a federal designation for ending veteran homelessness. It was given to the Suburban Metro Area Continuum of Care (SMAC), which includes Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Washington counties.

This is the sixth of 10 jurisdictions in Minnesota to effectively end homelessness.

“I think the governor is right, I think we’re making great strides, great progress in this. It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “This is going to be a continually moving target for us that we just can’t lose focus on this target of ending homelessness.”

The pandemic has also taken a toll on the mental health of veterans, whether they’ve been laid off or have more stress at home.

Whitehead told us they are advocating for more services, with the rate of suicide among veterans a constant concern.

“Making sure the VA is continuing [to find] new ways to reach out to the mental health piece of helping veterans,” said Whitehead. “What we’re hearing from veterans across the country is more people are trying to get to that service. We know that veterans are asking more now today than they were before this pandemic so it’s definitely caused more of a hindrance on veterans.”

Over the next year, Whitehead said he will continue to advocate for women and minority veterans, including pushing for more diverse physicians at the VA.

“They’re the fastest veteran population we have, the VA has to be ready for that increase in their care,” he said.

There are more than 19,000 DAV members in Minnesota and about a million members across the United States. The DAV celebrates 100 years in service in 2020.