Minnesota finally gets 4th Vet Center

By Dennis Dalman
Anoka Vet Center Director Craig Towle, holding scissors, prepares to cut the ribbon officially opening the St. Cloud Vet Center Outstation. From left are a VA staff member, veteran Casey McCulloch, veteran Paul Evangilist, Michael Fisher of VA Readjustment Counseling Service, Towle, a VA staff member, veteran Vincent Smith, St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis and MDVA Deputy Commissioner Eric Meittunen. Photo by Dennis Dalman

Ceremony opens outstation in St. Cloud

ST. CLOUD — A long-deferred dream came true on a sunny morning of June 13 when a dedication ceremony officially opened the new Veteran Center Outstation in southeast St. Cloud.

The center will serve veterans and families throughout central Minnesota. Vet Centers provide readjustment counseling for veterans, servicemembers and their families, with no impact on their medical records.

About 125 people attended the outdoor event in front of the Vet Center at 330 S. Hwy. 10. where a ribbon-cutting followed speeches given by veterans. In the audience, under a large tent awning, were many veterans and their family members who sat and listened intently to sometimes heart-rending memories, redeemed by the speakers’ upbeat optimism and inspiration. St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis was a member of the audience.

The program was emceed by Craig Towle, director of the Anoka Vet Center. The keynote speaker was Michael Fisher, chief officer of the Readjustment Counseling Service. An aide to Sen. Amy Klobuchar read a statement from the senator congratulating St. Cloud for its new Vet Center.

The event began with a color guard posting flags near the speakers’ lectern, then an invocation followed by the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” After the hour-long ceremony, the center was opened for guided tours.

The American Legion Department of Minnesota has pushed the federal VA for the expansion of Vet Centers in Minnesota since passing a state resolution in 2011.

Many veterans and their supporters were in St. Cloud on June 13 for the dedication of the Vet Center outstation, including Department Commander Paul Hassing, center.

After the Legion produced an analysis showing how Minnesota was among the worst states for the ratio of veterans to Vet Centers, and because of the efforts of Legion members Phil Ringstrom, Tom Mullon and Jeremy Wolfsteller, as well as the VFW’s Tommy Johnson, the Minnesota Commanders’ Task Force took up the cause in 2019.

It had the support of several commanders at the time, but it was the Legion’s Mark Dvorak who convinced the CTF to take on the effort. The veterans called for three new Vet Centers: St. Cloud, Mankato and Bemidji.

Larry Herke, who was the state veterans affairs commissioner at the time, brought the clout of the state government to the matter. He got Minnesota  Gov. Tim Walz to join the push. They set up meetings with VA Secretary Denis McDonough, including one with Ringstrom and McDonough alone during the pandemic.

The outstation in St. Cloud is the result of those efforts.

Walz, who is an Army National Guard veteran, spoke at the ceremony. He thanked and praised St. Cloud and its veterans for working to get a Vet Center for all veterans who live in the area.

Walz said he has talked through the years to many veterans who told him this: “I would be dead today if not for Vet Centers.”

The new Vet Center is one of more than 300 such centers in the United States and its territories. The St. Cloud one is called an outstation because it is a “satellite” clinic managed by the Anoka Vet Center. Other Vet Centers in Minnesota are in Richfield (St. Paul Vet Center) and in Duluth.

Vet centers began in 1979 in response to the many Vietnam veterans in need of help. Each Vet Center is a non-medical counseling facility that offers a variety of social and psychological services that are provided free of charge to veterans, current service members and their families. The Vet Center, many of whose staffs include veterans, provide completely confidential counseling for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the psychological after-effects of military sexual trauma. The centers also make referrals for clients to the VA Health Care System for health services and benefits.

Close to 350,000 military veterans live in Minnesota. In contrast, Wisconsin has 331,000 veterans, and it has five Vet Centers. North Dakota claims 55,000 veterans, and it has four.

The following are some of the comments made by three of the dedication ceremony’s speakers:

Casey McCulloch

Casey McCulloch, who had been in the Florida National Guard, did a tour of duty in Iraq where she witnessed many traumatizing events. Though she was not wounded physically, she developed post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered anxiety and panic attacks for 13 years. Her life, she said, had become an empty shell, and she had thoughts of wanting to die.

Then one day, a year ago, she summoned up the courage to go a Vet Center where she blurted out the words “I need help.” Saying those three empowering words were the beginning of a new, happy, productive life for McCulloch.

Paul Evangilist

A former U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran, Paul Evangilist, vividly remembers coming home to America and getting in a taxi to go to the airport.

Gov. Tim Walz, right, stands with Phil Ringstrom, a Sartell veteran who advocated for Vet Center expansion since the mid-2000s.

When he told the cab driver he was just back from Vietnam, the driver said this to him: “Aren’t you Marines the ones who kill babies and women over there?”

It was an awful moment because Evangilist knew right there and then that he had left one war to have to confront another “war” at home — hostility and dislike from so many people he would meet.

It wasn’t until years later, when he was 69, that Evangilist sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and began to “rebuild” his life.

He predicted the new St. Cloud Vet Center will be a “safe harbor” for so many veterans and their families.

Vincent Smith

Vincent Smith, too, is a Vietnam veteran who was a military policeman and dog-handler. He later became a biology teacher.

He talked of the tight and loving bond he developed with his dog named Tap, who was adept at sniffing out heroin. Tap’s cruel death — he’d been killed and then eaten — devastated Smith and took him years and years to get over.

Smith’s talk at times had the audience rollicking with laughter when he recalled with witty, wild remarks his adventures and misadventures as a boy, as a soldier and as a teacher.

An honor guard from Foley advanced the colors.

He talked of the time the school superintendent visited his biology classroom and a cockatiel made a mid-air fluttering dash toward the man’s head, causing him to fall to the floor.

“What was that?!” the man asked.

“A cockatiel,” said Smith. “He’s one of the animals I use in my teaching.”

“Well, I’m sure glad you don’t teach about elephants!” said the exasperated superintendent.

The audience erupted with laughter.


Any veteran, servicemember or their family members who would like to make an appointment at the St. Cloud Vet Center Outstation should call 763-503-2220. That number is the same for the Anoka Vet Center.