Bruce Knutson had his talking points, but he also posed some questions Monday, two days before Veterans Day 2015.
Is caring for military veterans a cost of going to war? That is what Knutson, veterans liaison for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked two dozen attendees during City Club Missoula’s monthly luncheon at the Doubletree Edgewater.
Who bears responsibility for the care of veterans – the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, local communities, or both?
Is a volunteer military good or bad for our country?
“I don’t know the answer, but it’s something we should consider,” Knutson said of the latter.
Knutson was back at City Club on Veterans Day week for the second consecutive year. This time, he shared the podium with Shawn Grove, director of the University of Montana’s Veterans Education and Transition Services (VETS) office, who talked about the challenges veterans face when they return to school and civilian life, and how the community can help.
Knutson told local leaders and a table of five students from Willard Alternative High School that his boss and the U.S. Senate are determined to hammer out a budget for the Veterans Administration this week – “hopefully before Wednesday.”
“In the past, it’s been rather difficult due to budget caps,” he said. “Last week, we got the debt ceiling and budget issues fixed, so hopefully this week we’ll be able to come up with a number to properly fund the VA. I don’t know how that’ll play out yet.”
Due in part to budget uncertainties, Knutson had little movement to report on addressing what the Veterans Administration deemed its No. 1 need in Missoula: a larger veterans clinic. The current office on Palmer Street of less than 20,000 square feet falls far short of the 50,000 deemed necessary to meet the needs of a wave of veterans in western Montana.
“In the not-so-distant future, you’ll see an expansion. I’m going to say the next five years as we work through projections and budgets and that kind of stuff,” Knutson said.
“The key to keep in mind when we talk about health care is it’s not the building that provides the care,” he added. “It’s the people who provide the care, and right now clinical providers within the VA system are in a high demand.”
Knutson urged his audience to help recruit doctors and nurses to VA hospitals and clinics.
“We’ve all heard about wait times and delays and all of that, but a lot of that specifically comes down to not having an appropriate number of clinical providers,” he said. “And we on the rural frontier here in Montana feel the effect more than somebody living in the larger cities.”
What was once a $65,000 student loan-forgiveness cap for those who enter the veterans’ health care field has been bumped up to $120,000.
There’s also a serious dearth of mental health professionals in Montana, and Knutson said the state is looking at a model Spokane and Boise are using in partnership with the University of Washington. It creates residencies for psychiatrists who deal with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The thought process is if we can get them to Montana, we can hold them here,” he said.
Spokane enjoys a retention rate of some 80 percent for such residencies, and Boise is in the high 60s.
Grove said returning veterans receive “great education benefits” to enroll in college, but many struggle to take advantage. That's understandable.
“In the military, they have a whole culture that they’ve been ingrained in, a career path with a very specific rank structure,” he said. “Then you leave the military, and the feeling is you’re basically starting all over again.”
“They graduated high school just like everybody else, but when they’re 18 or maybe a few years later they go into the military,” said Grove. “Now they’re coming back to a college atmosphere, but they’re sharing a classroom and other areas with 18-year-olds when they’re probably 23 to 26 years old.”
As veterans, many college students are inherently independent men and women who tend to shy away from aid. As veterans in Montana, they're here for different reasons than those in Grove's previous job in Maryland.
"A lot of the veterans in Maryland want to be close to D.C.," Grove said. "Here, they want to be close to nature. They want to fish, they want to hunt and own guns. Not all of them, but a lot of them appreciate the atmosphere here in Montana, the outdoors, and the freedom to kind of step away from society whenever they want to go climb, whether it's Mount Sentinel or up in the Bob Marshall."