By DIANE NEWBERRY
ND Newspaper Association
Matt Eidson fits many definitions. He’s a young Democratic legislator, newly elected to represent Grand Forks in the North Dakota House of Representatives. He’s a graduate of the University of North Dakota, an English major, and a current graduate student. He’s a former journalist and editor of the student paper.
He’s also – and this is what might surprise some – a veteran of the Marine Corps who served from 2008 to 2015 in Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan and South Korea.
Eidson, 31, who said that he and other Marines tend to become “apolitical” while in the service, said he started being more attentive to politics during the 2016 presidential election. In his relatively new home in North Dakota, he wondered if he could be a participant in the democratic process.
“I always told myself I can’t,” Eidson said. “Like, I have tattoos, I’m not from North Dakota, this, this, this, and this and it really just came down to it and it was like, well I think that’s maybe not the case. I think I can actually do something if I wanted to.”
In his first session, Eidson said his main legislative interests are bills that affect the two populations he counts himself as a part of: veterans and students. In serving these two populations, Eidson said communication and understanding of experiences different from one’s own is key.
“I’m just interested in kind of working that balance between civilian and veteran because there’s a lot of miscommunication between those two,” Eidson said. “It’s just, you know, they’re two different groups of people so sometimes there’s miscommunication.”
One instance of this, Eidson said, is a bill he is pushing this session that would expand the definition of “disabled veteran.”
“It’s easy on the civilian side to think, ‘Oh, disabled veteran. Obviously they’re fully disabled,’ and they think ‘missing leg’ or ‘can’t walk’ or ‘trouble breathing,’” Eidson said. However, the disability rating given to some conditions such as PTSD could be less than 100 percent, and Eidson said that still is “a disability they need help with.”
Other veteran legislators have spoken to the fact that veterans’ issues such as PTSD can be complicated and the government’s understanding of them has changed over time.
Rep. Matthew Ruby, R-Minot, who has served in the National Guard for nine years, said he believes older veterans in the legislature and elsewhere have “a little bit of a coming-to-Jesus moment” when it comes to veterans’ mental health issues.
“Those generations are realizing what issues they face that don’t really have a name,” Ruby said. “It used to be called shell shock and stuff like that, and now it’s got a name and it’s diagnosable.”
Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt, said he “feel(s) there’s a tension between each generation of veterans.” As a Vietnam veteran, he said the fact that his generation “was never welcomed home” can be a contributing factor to their world view. As a result, some newer notions of treatment for veterans’ issues may not be as appealing as it would be for younger generations.
“I don’t know if the approval of medical marijuana would help because I know a lot of the Vietnam veterans smoked marijuana when they were over in Vietnam,” Marcellais said.
Eidson said he has had good experiences with the Veterans Affairs hospitals in North Dakota. Marcellais said he goes to VA hospitals primarily for check-ups so they have his data in case a lawsuit concerning the use of Agent Orange is ever successful. Recently, he said, he was surprised to see a death certificate from a VA hospital that listed Agent Orange as a contributing factor in the death of a veteran.
One of the biggest potential misunderstandings between older and younger generations of veterans, Eidson said, is how to view issues like veteran-specific tax exemptions and incentive programs. Two bills this session propose to eliminate income tax and property tax for veterans.
“The older generation, from what I understand – haven’t witnessed it yet – a lot of the things that we would consider great incentives, they consider handouts and that it’s beneath a veteran, and to them it might be,” Eidson said. “Maybe to a lot of the veteran community it is. But it’s not to every veteran.”
Eidson said he believes these viewpoints are not borne out of “malice,” but out of miscommunication.
“That’s generally where I push back a little bit … if they say ‘Oh, they don’t need that,’” Eidson said. “Well, you don’t need that. That person you don’t know might need that. And I’ve seen that person you don’t know. I’ve gone to school with that person you don’t know, so it’s just about having the conversation.”