For more than a decade, Mike Brinck '68 has stood on the front lines in the halls of Congress, working to enhance the lives of fellow US military veterans.
As a senior staff member to the majority chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives since 1994, the retired US Navy commander has helped shape policy and implement benefits for a growing force of vets returning from two extended post-9/11 wars.
He currently is staff director of the subcommittee on economic opportunity, working to help Majority Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) ease the financial challenges facing veterans who are returning to a still-recovering economy.
Brinck previously worked to help implement the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program, two benefit programs that have helped countless veterans to achieve college educations that enhanced their employability.
He returned to the St. Ambrose campus in March as the keynote speaker at a Student Veterans Forum hosted by the SAU Office of Veterans Recruitment and Services.
Brinck was moved when 85 percent of the veterans at the forum raised their hand when asked if they knew a fellow vet who had committed suicide. SAU veterans coordinator Andrew Gates '11, who served two tours in Iraq as a Marine, said attendees left the forum confident that Brinck understood their challenges.
"As a Vietnam veteran, Mike knows firsthand the sacrifices veterans have made," Gates said. "He knows they have earned their benefits, including the chance to better themselves with a college degree."
Brinck said providing veterans assistance has grown more challenging as US leaders work to trim the federal deficit, but he said the divisiveness that defines Washington politics these days is less a problem for the Veterans Affairs Committee than for other Congressional committees.
"You are never going to agree on everything, but thankfully the Veterans Affairs Committee tends to be relatively non-partisan and our members really try to work together," he said.
Brinck also said it is encouraging to see widespread public support for veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a change from the reception he and others experienced when they came home from Vietnam some 40 years ago.
Brinck's path to a Navy career began when he met a recruiter at the beginning of spring semester of his senior year at St. Ambrose. One week after earning his bachelor's degree in political science in the winter of 1968, he reported to Officer Candidate School at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., where he learned to fly combat helicopters.
Two tours of duty in Vietnam followed, after which Brinck moved up the Navy chain of command as a career officer. In his 20-year career, he earned 16 air medals, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and two Navy commendation medals.
Brinck retired with the rank of commander in 1988, but not before his most memorable assignment-three deployments to fly scientists around Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze.
"The flying was a helicopter pilot's dream," he said. "I'd go back tomorrow."
Gates and veterans everywhere are pleased that Brinck has instead kept his feet on the ground and his eye on their needs. "It really helps to know we have someone with Mike's background in there, fighting for us," Gates said.