Sen. Daines: Taking care of our veterans

Some in Washington may tell you that the dust is finally settling after over a decade of war. I would say those folks aren’t seeing the whole picture – and the 80 servicemembers from Montana’s 219th RED HORSE Squadron who recently returned from their deployment to the Middle East might, too.

The threats facing our nation are growing – and with it, American servicemembers are more important than ever.

Whether it’s engaging the enemy, constructing runways for bombers or manning a Missile Alert Facility in Great Falls – Montana servicemembers are protecting our nation daily.

These servicemembers will one day join the ranks of the 100,000 other veterans in Montana – and it will be time for us to serve them.

Unfortunately, we are currently failing our veterans and are ill prepared to take care of our servicemembers.

As Memorial Day approaches and we celebrate Military Appreciation Month, we honor those who have served and are serving our country. It reminds me that there is more to do. As the son of a Marine who served with the Billings-based 58th Rifle Company, I’ve been raised to always take it one step further than that.

John F. Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

In Washington, it seems as though many have forgotten that sentiment.

For too long I’ve heard horror stories about the treatment of our veterans – wait times, failed payments for care providers, an inability to get a ride to treatment from a rural area – the list goes on and is known by many.

This month the Senate is moving forward with a bill to reform the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs based off of legislation I introduced earlier this year.

The Veterans First Act includes many substantial fixes I’ve long fought for – like allowing female World War II pilots who trained in Great Falls to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and overhauling the Choice Program, which was meant to allow veterans easier access to care outside of the VA when they needed it. Unfortunately, it’s doing just the opposite, which is why new reforms are essential.

Change needs to happen in the VA – ask any veteran who’s had their credit score impacted by the failure to get their medical bills reimbursed in time.

But veterans in rural states like Montana will always need help and we cannot simply stop with this bill.

Rural veterans face higher rates of suicide, decreased access to care and unique issues like less access to employment opportunities. After urging for a new Veterans Center in Helena, I thanked the VA when it was completed – but I won’t stop fighting for more rural access, including adding a Veterans Home in Butte.

I also applauded the U.S. Department of Agriculture for increasing hiring programs for veterans – and successfully fought tooth and nail to bring the program to Montana when I heard we were not originally included.

I appreciate the rural van drivers the VA provides – but I’m still demanding that the VA step up their efforts to fill empty employment positions ensuring that veterans are able to make their appointments.

This list goes on with more that we must fight for in rural areas, and my priorities for Montana veterans will not stop with the Veterans First Act. That’s why I’m excited about this step in the right direction for those who so bravely served our nation.

On Mother’s Day weekend, homecoming celebrations welcomed men and women of Montana’s 219th RED HORSE Squadron home from six months of sacrificial service. These celebrations are important. But the best way that we as a nation can thank our military men and women is to ensure that they receive the care and support they need well after their service to the country has ended.

That is exactly what I have been doing in Washington. By enhancing VA accountability, bolstering resources and increasing veteran services in our communities, we can fulfill our unwavering commitment to our veterans.

I am proud that together we are taking action for our veterans and, like our forefathers did, expressing our gratitude through our actions.