Wisconsin's Jake Leinenkugel to lead commission focused on veterans' mental health

Rep. Glenn Grotham (R-WI.), left, with Jake Leinenkugel. Leinenkugel was chosen by President Donald Trump to lead a Department of Veterans Affairs commission focused on veterans’ mental health treatments.

By CHRIS VETTER | Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis. | Published: July 25, 2018

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. (Tribune News Service) — When Jake Leinenkugel, then-senior adviser to the White House for the Department of Veterans Affairs, spoke at the Chippewa Valley VA Clinic earlier this month, he talked passionately about the need to meet the mental health needs of veterans, and explore ways to reduce suicides, as well as discussing ideas to make them healthier.

Now, Leinenkugel has been tapped by President Donald Trump to lead a VA commission focused on veterans’ mental health treatment.

The Creating Options for Veterans’ Expedited Recovery Commission held its first hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C., and the group will meet again today.

“It’s a very crucial and needed commission, to explore VA medical health care and ensure they get the right treatment,” Leinenkugel said Tuesday night after 14 hours of testimony. “We’ll be looking at alternative procedures and alternative medicine we’re currently not using. We’ll be coming up with recommendations over the next several months.”

Leinenkugel said he was honored to be selected to lead the commission.

“It was unexpected. I got the news three weeks ago. It’s something I very much wanted to be part of,” he said.

The VA sent a news release Tuesday morning touting the selection of Leinenkugel.

“Jake has been an ambassador for change at VA, working to implement President Trump’s policies throughout the department over the past year and a half,” said acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke in a statement Tuesday. “As leader of this important new commission, Jake will continue to advocate for better care and services for his fellow veterans.”

Leinenkugel, who served in the U.S. Marines for six years, along with five more years in the reserves, focused his 18 months as senior adviser on finding ways to reduce suicides and get veterans the help they need. He has since stepped down as senior adviser and moved back to Chippewa Falls, but continues to work for the VA in a consulting role, such as on this commission.

Mike Hanke, director of the veterans’ homeless program at Klein Hall in Chippewa Falls, said he’s pleased to see the VA focus on mental health issues and that Leinenkugel was a good choice to lead the commission.

“If we reflect on veterans’ homelessness, veterans’ suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder — all the negative things surrounding mental health — it’s the same problems and issues,” Hanke said. “I believe Jake’s involvement in the community, and he can reflect on their needs as a former Marine. He definitely has ‘skin in the game’ and can maintain the focus on veterans’ mental health.”

Dave Zien, a former state lawmaker from the Chippewa County town of Wheaton, is also a veteran. He attended a one-day retreat Monday that was devoted to discussing post-traumatic stress disorder, and he said mental health of veterans needs to be talked about more.

“Veterans’ mental health isn’t just for the vets — it affects the whole family,” Zien said. “And it has been ignored for years, until recently. A lot of the veterans need that extra attention — the mental, physical and emotional treatment.”

Zien praised the selection of Leinenkugel to lead the commission.

“It’s inspiring that Jake is going to do this,” Zien said. “All veterans in the United States will benefit from Jake’s compassion.”

Leinenkugel served as president of Leinenkugel Brewing Co. for 25 years, from 1989 until retiring in 2014.

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