Logan and Lexi Markgraf

Logan and Lexi Markgraf and their son, Easton, sit in their Stewart home, which they were able to purchase with help from Welcome Home Vet last year. The program aims to better prepare veterans such as Logan for life following military service.

Veterans returning to civilian life often search for programs to help with the adjustment. Meanwhile, employers in rural areas need skilled laborers. A growing program aims to address both issues.

"All the pieces are coming together," said American Legion Post 96 Commander Tim Burley.

He's among those spearheading Welcome Home Vet, which has pilot programs covering a 30-mile radius of Hutchinson, Little Falls, Brainerd, Monticello and Le Center.

Burley said that since an early 2019 Leader story, the pilot program has been successful in encouraging young families to move to Hutchinson to connect to resources. Businesses and the city are encouraging veterans to apply for jobs. Churches, banks, realtors and other Hutchinson groups are learning how to reach out to veterans and work with them to access services, benefits and programs available to them. Assistance is available for job searches, financial questions, medical questions and the hunt for housing.

"Other cities are following, but we're giving kudos to Hutch as being the first, and we're saying, 'Here is what we are building,'" Burley said. "Hutchinson has moved a long way forward on how to handle veteran issues, and it's noticeable."

To celebrate Hutchinson's program graduating from pilot status, Welcome Home Vet is hosting a "Vet.A.Bration" 2-3:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 10, at the DAV offices at 177 Third Ave. N.W., Hutchinson. Seating is limited, but those planning to participate can pre-register at welcomehome.vet.

Community representatives and guests such as veteran and former New York Jets defensive back Reggie Grant will speak at the event, which will include an award ceremony to honor Hutchinson's work in pairing military transition and community development.

"What it comes down to is we have to be able to sell the city of Hutchinson to get vets out here," Burley said. "Because we want them here. You bring veterans in and you bring in employees. You bring in federal assistance dollars. And veterans don't have a problem getting dirty. They will work hard."

In addition to discussing the value of partnerships between businesses, government, academia and philanthropy, the event will highlight useful information to promote such engagements. It is sponsored by the Global Business Incubation Emerald Veterans Group, American Legion Post 96, Hutchinson Minnesota DAV Chapter 37, eSportsInstruction, Saluting Community Heroes, and ECI Networks.

WHV evolved from unofficial work Burley took on more than five years ago after he nearly died from a condition that destroyed much of his heart. He recalls his mother's surprise when he woke up from treatment and lived.

"Every doctor told me I’m not supposed to be (alive),” Burley said.

Two of his sons joined the military and a close friend from his time in the service died.

“I needed to do more,” he said. “Mom said, ‘Why are you still here?’ I said, ‘(God) took my heart, I better go fill my soul.’”

As he took on peer-to-peer counseling work, he found many veterans needed the help of someone who understood what they were going through. He started building connections and compiling lists of local contacts that offered free services for veterans transitioning to civilian life. In some cases, help is needed with financial planning. In other cases, veterans whose furniture is stuck oversees need help furnishing a new home.

Burley's work led him to meet Dr. Paul Ruffin of Monticello, who was developing a program to connect veterans to businesses, and support veterans who owned businesses with help from Global Business International. WHV grew from there, and programs are coming together in cities where volunteers have stepped forward.

Though nothing is set in stone, Burley said Welcome Home Vet has been speaking with Veterans Business Outreach Center about bringing services to Hutchinson. WBOC is a community development foundation similar to the Southwest Initiative Foundation in Hutchinson, which focuses on veterans.

"We're putting Hutchinson on the map," Burley said. "This is not a Twin Cities initiative. We're about rural development, and we're trying to get the veterans out of big cities. ... We want them out here."

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