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Column: Honor the fallen by caring for heroes still with us

All across our state, families gather each Memorial Day to remember those members of our military we've lost. It's a time to reflect on how we honor these fallen heroes and how to best treat those heroes still with us.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of our nation entering World War I. It was a war that thousands of Minnesotans had a part in — Minnesotans like Sgt. Louis Cukela.

In the summer of 1918, Cukela and his company were stopped by a large enemy force in the woods of Northern France. Ignoring the potential danger, the sergeant crawled and fought his way toward the enemy, facing heavy resistance. He was even able to get behind German lines. That display of determination saved lives and earned him the Medal of Honor.

Cukela is just one of many courageous men and women from our state who put their lives on the line for something greater than themselves. No matter where or when our veterans served, they all deserve to be honored for their sacrifice.

So how can we best honor those we've lost? One answer is by better caring for those who follow in their footsteps.

Toxic exposures

Take Amie Muller, who tragically passed away in February, nine months after being diagnosed with Stage III pancreatic cancer that was potentially linked to inhaling toxic fumes during her service. She left behind her husband and three children.

Muller enlisted in the Air Force in 1998 and joined the Minnesota Air National Guard in late 2001. While in Iraq, her quarters were right next to one of the most notorious burn pits — it operated 24/7 and consumed about 100 to 200 tons of waste each day. The fumes constantly floated to her camp nearby.

She wasn't the only one who suffered from toxic exposure to burn pits. An increasing number of our service members returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan have illnesses potentially caused by burn pit exposure.

They're the reason that Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and I introduced the Help Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act, which would create a center of excellence at the VA to better understand and begin to address the health needs of these veterans.

We've seen this kind of tragedy before. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. sprayed 80 million liters of Agent Orange, contaminating water and exposing more than 2 million members of the military. But it took the government years to recognize that there was a link between Agent Orange and the devastating health effects on our soldiers.

We can't let that history repeat itself. Our veterans deserve better.

They also deserve the best health care we can provide, a clear path to a good job, and the peace of mind that their families are cared for. I think we can all agree that they've more than earned it.

Inspirational Vessey

Last year, we lost an inspiring American: Gen. John Vessey.

He started his military career in the Minnesota National Guard at 16 and went on to become the 10th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And like so many of our veterans, when he retired, he didn't stop serving our country. He worked tirelessly to account for those who were listed as missing in action after the Vietnam War and worked with Minnesota veterans' groups.

I had the honor of attending his funeral. Despite being one of the foremost military leaders of our time, his service wasn't lavish or full of fanfare. It was simple and heartfelt. It reflected the kind of man Gen. Vessey was — the kind of people all our veterans are. They're defined by service — service without expecting much in return.

So to all the veterans throughout Minnesota, thank you for your service, your sacrifice, and your patriotism.

To all others, let us remember what these men and women have done for our country. Let us give them the respect they've earned. And let us work to provide them the care they have never asked for — but have always deserved.

Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., can be reached at 202-224-5641, 888-224-9043 or www.klobuchar.senate.gov/public/email-amy

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