ST. PAUL -- Veterans are homeless in larger numbers than other Minnesotans, and Durbin Keeney does not like that.

"These are the ones who raise their right hands..." Durbin said Monday, when the state honored the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. "They are willing to come home in a body bag, but not willing to come home homeless."

Keeney directs the council's Duluth-based region that serves 38 counties across northern Minnesota.

The council helps homeless veterans find shelter and jobs, as Keeney said, sometimes with quiet support and sometimes with a kick in the pants.

In November, the federal Veterans' Administration honored the Minnesota program; on Monday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty invited dozens of veterans to his Capitol office to do likewise.

The council's director said there is a reason Minnesota is doing better helping veterans than other states: "Passion fuels amazing results," Kathleen Vitalis said.

Pawlenty, who is thought to be seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, said his goal is "to make this the most veteran-friendly state." As part of that, he pledged to save veterans' programs from budget cuts in a time when the state faces a large deficit and nearly every other program is affected.

"We simply would not have the country we have without those men and women," he said about veterans.

The assistance council reports that statewide it helped 840 veterans from 62 counties last year, a 58 percent jump from 2007. About 76 percent of them have disabilities. Vitalis estimated that 4,000 veterans will be homeless or approaching homelessness at some point this year, although many will not seek the council's help.

The council provides rental and mortgage assistance and helps homeless veterans find jobs.

Keeney said his regional office helped 445 veterans in 2008, and a few less last year because lawmakers approved less money.

"We just didn't have that money to provide the services," said Kenney, who has been with the regional office since it opened in 1998.

However, he added, that forced the council to be more creative to find new ways to help homeless veterans.

Keeney said veterans become homeless much like others, alcohol and drug abuse and mental and physical health issues being among the top reasons.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., the parent company of the Woodbury Bulletin.