Hugh Quinn

Hugh Quinn is pictured in his former office at the Itasca County Veterans Services building. In his five years as the county’s Veterans Services Officer, Quinn has helped thousands of local veterans connect with the benefits and health care they’ve earned through their service to their country. He retires at the end of this month.

Quinn reflects on success and heartache at the vets office

Hugh Quinn’s five years as Itasca County’s Veterans Services Officer was framed by a day fixing toilets.

“The day after I started, New Year’s Day, I visited a vet living in a trailer in deplorable conditions,” remembers Quinn who spent the entire day with the man living alone without family or friends, common comforts and conveniences and very little food.

That day, Quinn says, set the basis for the job.

“It’s all about the vets.”

The man from the trailer would also become Quinn’s favorite part of the job.

“Best part of the job? When that fella died at my house on Christmas Eve because he was happy and surrounded by people who loved him.”

Quinn will gladly walk away from the frustrations with bureaucracy and unavoidable heartache that come with the position, but the former veterans officer will miss the advocacy work. He would like to see more attention be given to mental illness among veterans. He believes Itasca County should push to establish a separate court system exclusively for veterans such as in St. Louis and Hennepin counties.

“It’s not about letting people off the hook,” he explained. “I think there are many who are not capable of making the right decisions and it’s a result of going to war - due to their mental health.”

Quinn doesn’t believe mental illness today is any more prevalent among veterans than civilians, “it’s just the cause is different and there is a lack of understanding.”

“If you’ve never lived with, dated or been around a combat veteran, you don’t know that there are times things don’t make sense to them.”

One thing Quinn says he would’ve liked to see accomplished under his leadership is the establishment of Telehealth so veterans could get their intakes done at the vets office for screenings at the VA.

“That would’ve been the icing on the cake,” he says. “But there are always things that go unfinished with the VA. It’s like we always say, ‘the fox hole is never finished.’”

The county office is doing more locally these days in the processing of claims. As Quinn explained, his office is now preparing fully-developed claims with medical documents that are sent to the VA.

“It speeds up the process but means more work on the vets office staff,” he said. “DRC (decision ready claims) are now the norm.”

Quinn is hopeful that legislation recently drafted in both the House and Senate for improvements to rural veterans health care will make it to the President’s desk in the coming months. This, he believes may help veterans in areas like Itasca County get the timely and appropriate care they deserve from providers they trust. But Quinn also is a bit skeptical changes will be seen anytime soon as he’s witnessed how legislation that’s approved in D.C. can become filtered, or less-significant, as it moves through the various decision-makers and eventually makes its way to the local level. This is something he has come to understand after years of being extremely disappointed.

“When I started, I believed vets would come in, I would steer them toward the services they needed and the VA would respond,” he remembers. “I was naive. I thought there was no bureaucracy.”

Quinn’s enduring faith in his country is rooted in his upbringing. The son of a veteran and police officer, Quinn grew up in South Minneapolis and enlisted with the Minnesota National Guard at 18 the Monday after graduating from high school. He attended Bemidji State University and worked as a banker for a few years before choosing to go active with the reserve. In 1996, Quinn joined the reserve unit based in Grand Rapids and moved his young family to town. And they’ve been here ever since.

“It was great because my family stayed in Grand Rapids, my kids stayed at their schools. We were pretty darn lucky that way,” said Quinn of the stability he’s had considering the mobile circumstances that can come with active reserve commands.

After serving a year in Iraq, Quinn was again grateful to return to Grand Rapids.

In December 2012, Quinn was appointed as Itasca County Veterans Services Officer. He says he was set up for success from his predecessor with a new building for Veterans Services and a full-time, knowledgeable and hard-working staff. In the past five years - a period he says is long enough to accomplish things yet avoid burnout - Quinn and his staff have successfully secured hundreds of millions of dollars in federal compensation for local veterans.

In March of 2016 when county administration threatened to demote his department with restructuring, Quinn decided he couldn’t work in a position he didn’t accept in the beginning. His sudden resignation shed light on major discord throughout county offices. In response to overwhelming public support calling for his reinstatement, the county board of commissioners refused the restructure plan and the county administrator was let go. Quinn remembers one county employee coming to him in tears of relief and appreciation for the change that resulted.

Quinn says there have been many other “wins” over the years. In particular, he remembers he was two years on the job when staff came to him wanting to scout out widows of deceased veterans who may have still been owed back pay in compensation. Pointing to dozens of files scoured over months, Quinn was happy to report they were so successful, one woman was paid $280,000.

“I feel I’ve done everything I can,” says Quinn of his work for the county’s 4,400 veterans. “If I didn’t, it wasn’t for lack of trying,”

Besides his Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, or “all that other funny stuff to put on my uniform,” for Quinn, it all boils down to serving his fellow soldiers - like the man in the trailer.

What’s next? Quinn isn’t exactly sure. He’s thinking about doing some volunteer work and has an idea for a book based on his experiences in Iraq with his company, the Bravo Bulldogs.

Luke St. Germain has been hired to replace Quinn, effective Jan. 22.

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