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U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke said the Department of Veterans Affairs is encumbered by so much bureaucracy that fulfilling its mission of taking care of veterans is a lot like "fighting a war, and you have to ask headquarters for a bullet."

As part of a tour across the state, Zinke visited the Neural Injury Center at the University of Montana on Thursday to hear about its work supporting students who are veterans.

The Neural Injury Center, which started in 2014, conducts assessments of student veterans to determine if they have a traumatic brain injury, which can affect their ability to succeed in school, among other issues. The center can then provide documentation, referrals and help with accommodations for the students.

“We were founded with the mission to serve student vets, to see why their graduation rates were suffering a little bit,” said UM professor Alex Santos, who will take over as the center’s director this summer.

Sergej Michaud, a student veteran who attends UM, received a Purple Heart after being injured by an explosive device in Iraq in 2006.

Michaud said when he decided to go to school, representatives from the VA tried to convince him it wouldn’t be a good idea in part because of his traumatic brain injury.

“A lot of people don’t understand that as veterans we like to take on obstacles, and we’ll push through obstacles.” Michaud said.

He said he has a grade-point average above 3.9, an accomplishment that came with only small accommodations like being given extra time to take tests.

Santos said the Neural Injury Center is hoping to become a Veterans Affairs research center so it can receive federal funding and expand its reach – screening more veterans and supporting VA centers across Montana.

Currently, there are no VA research centers in Montana or neighboring states.

“Montana has about 100,000 veterans living in the state, and about 10,000 here in Missoula County,” he said.

Zinke said efforts to help veterans are usually better at the local level because it's more personal.

“Part of the problem with the VA is there’s a sense of urgency here, there’s a face behind it. By the time it gets up to the VA, the face has been stripped away, and it’s just a number,” Zinke said.

Zinke is running for re-election to the U.S. House. The only other candidate who has filed for the race is Democrat Denise Juneau, Montana's superintendent of public instruction.

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The congressman also toured the Neural Injury Center’s lab to get a rundown of some of the tools used to do assessments.

Among them were a custom-built plate that allows the researchers to track a patient’s balance and weight distribution. The center recently built a newer model that is more mobile and can be sent to any treatment center in the state and plugged into a laptop, Santos said.

Zinke also tried on a set of goggles that can track eye movement.

While wearing the goggles, patients are asked to follow a laser dot with their eyes as it moves around on a wall, Santos said. The test is useful, he said, because coordination of eye movement is very intricate, and lapses in control can indicate brain trauma.

While the center didn’t develop that headset, it did develop the process of using it to find traumatic brain injury and assess whether treatment is helping.

“This machine is able, 100 times per second, to get the exact position of the eyes,” he said. “How can we provide any treatment if we can’t gauge if the person is getting better or not?”

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.