The Way We Were

Veterans stand for a portrait on Nov. 11, 1927, during the dedication of the Doughboy statue on the lawn of the Missoula County Courthouse. Courtesy Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana/ #94-1285 This photograph is included in a book of historical Missoula photographs called "Missoula Memories, Volume II" available at the Missoulian.

Veterans get a lot of lip service these days. Especially around Veterans Day, politicians and patriots of all walks line up to offer well-deserved thanks to those who answered the call of service to our country.

If veterans were given this much attention throughout the year, they might actually be getting the quality of services they deserve. Unfortunately, the Veterans Day talk is too seldom followed up with meaningful action — with some notable exceptions in Montana.

Montana veterans are already stand-outs for their strength in numbers. Despite our state’s rural status, Montana has the second-highest percentage of veterans in the nation. With nearly 92,000 veterans calling Montana home, nearly one in 10 residents is a veteran, and this number is only expected to increase in coming years.

Montana is also one of the leading states for veteran suicides. The veteran unemployment rate, at last count, was 7.9 percent – about double Montana’s overall unemployment rate of 3.9 percent. Nearly 20 percent of Montana’s veterans have a service-related disability, and 8.8 percent of the state’s veterans are living in poverty. It’s estimated that about 300 are homeless.

So let’s not forget, as the Montana Legislature meets in special session this week to try to fill the state’s $227 million budget hole, a bill proposing to provide grants for veteran suicide prevention programs died in committee during the regular session – as did a bill to help veterans with business startup loans. Most significantly, a measure to build a new veterans home in Butte failed by just three votes.

Despite its high percentage of veterans and expansive size, the state has only two homes designated solely for veterans: one in Columbia Falls and one in Glendive. The Veterans Administration-certified facility in Columbia Falls has about 130 beds, including 15 beds in its Alzheimer’s unit. The home in Glendive has 80 beds. And tens of thousands of veterans somewhere within the roughly 500 miles that separates them.

In fact, at least 34,000 veterans live in southwestern Montana, which is why Butte was selected as the site for the new veterans’ home.

The good news for Montana veterans is that this past week, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, introduced a bill that would give new veterans homes in places like Butte higher priority on the VA’s State Home Construction Grant Program. This is important because currently, the VA prioritizes new homes based on sheer numbers of veterans, with less consideration given to the proximity of other facilities.

The home in Butte, called the Southwest Montana Veterans Home, has been on the VA priority list for seven years.

Ordinarily a bill like this, pushed by a Democrat from a small-population state in a Republican-dominated Congress, would seem a long shot. However, Tester has gotten no less than seven of his bills signed into law by President Trump so far this year, and the majority of them are aimed at improving veterans’ care.

This bodes well for his latest bipartisan legislation. The bill is cosponsored by Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, whose state is home to approximately 300,000 veterans, many of which also reside in relatively rural communities.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, of course. This summer, a Tester-backed amendment which would have fully funded the Southwest Montana Veterans Home failed to receive enough votes to be added to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill.

Tester has also been among those unsuccessfully pushing VA Secretary David Shulkin to reduce staffing shortages and appointment backlogs in Montana after the Inspector General issued a report with recommendations for improvements. To date, those improvements have yet to take place – although last week, Tester did announce that Shulkin is sending a special task force to Montana to look into the holdup. Hopefully the visit will happen sooner rather than later. After all, Montana’s veterans are the ones stuck with this situation, through no fault of their own.

Health care facilities are already few and far between in Montana’s most rural counties, and given the notorious bureaucracy and delays challenging the VA, existing health providers already have their hands full covering the full costs of caring for their veteran patients.

The Veterans Choice program that was supposed to ease some of these challenges and allow veterans living in rural communities to receive care at health care facilities closer to home is also undergoing review and revision. Veterans have been complaining that the three-year-old program, which relied on a private contractor to schedule appointments and pay bills, only contributed to long waiting times for appointments. A bill that re-established the VA as the direct payer was on the list of Tester’s bills signed by President Trump earlier this year.

Montanans joined the rest of the United States yesterday, Veterans Day, in thanking those who risked life and limb to serve their country. We recognized the special sacrifice they and their families have made, and vowed to honor their service not just one day out of the year, but every day.

Now Montanans need to show our veterans that we meant it, and make sure they have the housing, employment and health care support — not just supportive words — they so richly deserve.

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