Independent Record: Delegation Reflects on US Miltary

May is a month to recognize what those who don the uniforms of the country give to their nation.

May 8 is the date that marks the Allies’ acceptance of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. May 21 is Armed Forces Day, created in 1949 to replace separate patriotic days for individual branches of military service.

May 30, Memorial Day, is a day of remembrance for those who died in service to the nation.

These aren’t the only significant dates during the month that recognize and pay homage to those in service.

But in 1999, Congress set aside May for a month-long observance honoring the sacrifices made by those in military service.

We thought it fitting to ask members of our congressional delegation — Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke — for their thoughts on the military as the nation marks Military Appreciation Month.

In emailed questions, we asked about their thoughts on the nation’s military and whether the military is being asked to expand commensurate with its resources or are needs going unmet.

We also wanted to know if they saw needs being unmet, what did they think needs to be done and how they envisioned their roles.

“Our military remains the strongest, most capable the world has ever seen,” Daines said.

“But we need to modernize and enhance military readiness to ensure that the men and women of our armed forces are successful in their missions and fully equipped and prepared for emerging threats to our nation.

“It’s critical that we support the Malmstrom Air Force Base mission and all our military assets in the state. The men and women in Montana are a core part of our national security. That’s why at every opportunity I’m fighting to protect and expand Montana’s missions,” Daines noted.

“I’m fighting to ensure our weapons are upgraded and the equipment that protects them is safe. Currently, Malmstrom is using Vietnam-era helicopters to secure our nuclear missiles. That is unacceptable and wrong. I have and will continue to demand updated helicopters that can secure and protect our nuclear assets.

“To strategically manage our resources, I have been focusing on acquisition reform and opening the defense market to more competition to small businesses. If we make the Pentagon more efficient we can better respond to the needs from our commanders on the ground,” Daines said.

Tester shares Daines’ assessment of the nation’s armed forces and said, “We have the strongest and most capable military force in the world. We spend more on defense than the next eight nations combined.

“But as domestic and international threats evolve and our adversaries develop more sophisticated technology and capabilities, we must ensure our military has the tools, resources and capabilities required to keep our citizens safe.

“We aren’t fighting the same type of wars fought by our grandparents, and our strategies must reflect that reality. Simply sending troops to fight in more and more conflicts around the world doesn’t make our nation more secure unless the fight is in America’s direct national security interest and there is sound strategy to win,” Tester said.

“We also need to make critical investments to maintain our technological edge, from materials to cybersecurity to bio-defense. And I am proud that some of that work is happening in Montana.

“As a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and vice chairman of the Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee, I’m working to make smart investments in our military while also realizing we can’t simply put another war on our children’s credit card.

“At the same time, I believe that a strong economy, a healthy and educated workforce, and a sound infrastructure system are also key indicators of our strength as a nation,” Tester said.

“The bedrock of our national security is our military. But it’s also about securing our borders, making sure our law enforcement officers – both federal and local – have the tools to keep our communities safe, and making sure our airports have the technology to combat threats.

“As Montana’s only member of the Homeland Security Committee, I’m working with our border patrol agents, law enforcement agencies and airport directors to ensure they have every tool they need to keep our families safe,” Tester said.

“Just last year, my bill to add the equivalent of 1,500 agents to the border while saving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars was signed into law. It was a critical step,” Tester said. “But much more remains to be done.”

Zinke also agrees on the capabilities of the nation’s military and said, “The United States military is the finest fighting force on the planet. I am honored to have had the privilege of serving with and training thousands of brave men and women of the armed forces.

“As the president increases the number special operations forces deployed to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria it’s absolutely critical that Congress does its job to ensure our warfighters have everything they need to win and win decisively on the field of battle. This means making sure our troops have the equipment, supplies, training, and support package to include a quick reaction force or medevac if they get in trouble,” Zinke said.

“I’m also a relentless advocate for better rules of engagement for our troops. The recent deaths of Navy SEAL Charlie Keating and Army Green Beret Sergeant First Class Matthew McClintock are tragic examples of the need for better rules of engagement for our troops.

“When the Pentagon requires host nations and bureaucrats to sign off on airstrikes the ground commanders call in against hostile combatants, American lives will be lost. That’s unacceptable,” Zinke said.

When asked what members of the delegation have been able to do on behalf of those who serve in the military, Zinke said, “As the only member of the Montana congressional delegation to sit on the Armed Services Committee, it’s my job to do just that. In this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, I helped secure critical funding for our troops forward deployed and supported the Posture Act with my fellow veterans so that our end strength would not be further cut.

“We simply cannot continue to ask our men and women to always do more while giving them less. Closer to home, I have continued to fight to get new helicopters at Malmstrom to better defend America’s nuclear missiles. The current Hueys are too old and inefficient to adequately complete the mission before them. Washington bureaucracy has left a gaping hole in the protection of our nukes. No more delays, it’s time to get this done,” Zinke said.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done to support our active duty and reserve component troops and their families,” Tester said of his work on behalf of those in uniform.

“After working closely with the Helena community, we recently announced that a new Vet Center is coming to town. This will be a place where active duty service members, veterans and their families can access mental health care, job resources and other critical resources.

“Building off of this effort, I have introduced a bill to help reduce the high rate of suicide among members of the National Guard and Reserve by allowing these folks to access the critical services provided to Vet Centers,” Tester said.

“Continuing to work closely with Montana Adjutant General Matthew Quinn, we’ve also been able to secure the resources to modernize the C-130s that the Montana National Guard uses to keep our state safe and to respond to various emergencies,” Tester noted.

“I have worked tirelessly to achieve the priorities of Malmstrom and our Army and Air National Guard assets,” Daines said.

“I have also fought to improve the care and treatment of our veterans. One memorable effort that we were able to fix was the fact that homeless veterans who were buried at the Yellowstone County Veteran’s Cemetery in Laurel had no grave markers.

“Our veterans have sacrificed so much in service to our nation, and it’s important that they receive the honor and respect they deserve, both in life and in death. These homeless veterans now have been laid to rest with grave markers honoring their service,” Daines said.

Health care and services for veterans has been in the news, and members of the delegation spoke to the issue. Zinke expressed his dissatisfaction with that care and Tester and Daines addressed what they’re doing.

“Our veterans and their families have sacrificed so much for our freedom, we owe them more than our gratitude, we owe them action,” Tester said.

“That’s why I have worked with veterans all across our state to draft a comprehensive reform bill that reduces wait times, holds the VA accountable for the care it provides and addresses the chronic shortage of medical professionals in states like Montana.

“My Veterans First Act will help fix the Choice Program, build a stronger pipeline of doctors and other medical professionals into the VA and help fix the disability appeals process that has delayed benefits for too many veterans,” Tester said. “It is a good bill and you can read more about it on my website.

“As Montana’s only member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and vice chairman of the VA Appropriations Subcommittee, I regularly hold listening sessions across the state to hear from veterans about how we can better honor our commitment to them.

“As a result of those meetings, I’ve introduced over 40 bills ranging from the increasing travel pay for disabled veterans to the comprehensive Veterans First Act, which reforms the VA, to legislation that protects VA whistleblowers who want to report wrongdoing,” Tester said.

“My eight Montana offices have staff equipped to handle veterans’ casework, so if you have a problem with a disability claim or a doctor’s appointment feel free to reach out. Over the last year, our office has helped over 300 veterans access health care and our work isn’t done until we have truly upheld our promises to those who have served,” Tester said.

“This month the Senate is moving forward with a bill to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) based off of legislation I introduced earlier this year,” Daines said.

“The Veterans First Act includes fixes that Montana veterans have asked me for, like allowing female World War II pilots who trained in Great Falls to be inurned 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,” Daines said. “Unfortunately, it’s doing the opposite, which is why new reforms are needed.

“I am also fighting to do more to prevent veteran suicide. I supported the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act to help ensure veterans’ mental health challenges are promptly addressed, and I’m continuing to prioritize solutions to this problem.

“And I have championed reforms that help veterans who leave the service find good jobs and successfully transition to civilian life,” Daines said.

“I am not at all satisfied with the current treatment and care of our veterans,” Zinke said, “and I have been and will continue to work toward the highest quality of care and services possible.

“As the only veteran in the Montana delegation, I know the VA on a personal level. The Department of Veterans Affairs is ripe with fraud and incompetency at best and criminal wrongdoing at worse. Yet, few have been fired or held accountable. I helped lead the fight in the House to pass the VA Accountability Act, which makes it easier for wrongdoers at the VA to be fired, demoted or professionally reprimanded.

“Out of the thousands of people identified as having a part in the manufactured wait times, rationed care and even deaths of veterans, only a small handful have been fired because they hide behind loopholes that only federal employees receive. Nobody in the private sector would expect to keep their jobs after some of the blunders that have come out of the VA.

“I am confident that most VA employees are doing their best in the jobs before them, but for those who perform poorly, there should be consequences. This is a common sense bill that will deliver accountability and the Senate should take up immediately,” Zinke said.

“I’d also like to see changes to the Veterans Choice program. While it was well-intended, the implementation has been a disaster for Montana veterans who need care.

“My staff and statewide veterans advisory committee is working with community leaders to come up with solutions that will work for Montana,” Zinke said.

“Our veterans deserve the freedom and flexibility to seek out the healthcare that is best for them, rather than being hampered with long drives to Helena, excessive wait times on the phone and endless paperwork delays.

“Another issue of serious concern to me is taking care of our women veterans. The number of women veterans getting care at the VA has nearly doubled in the past decade. As more and more women choose to serve in the military (my daughter included), it has become obvious that our VA system is not prepared to meet their needs when they come home. That is why I chose to cosponsor H.R. 1356, the Women Veterans Access to Quality Care Act of 2015. This bipartisan bill modernizes the VA so that women’s health no longer suffers.

“In addition to the federal government honoring our promise to veterans on healthcare, I’d also like to see more done to aid the transition from soldier to civilian.

“Some estimates show 22 veterans a day commit suicide — much of that is due in part to PTSD,” Zinke said. “This is unacceptable and we should all be dedicated to ending this epidemic, but as a veteran, I can tell you that veterans need to help each other rise up.

“I support veteran-to-veteran mentoring, and I believe job training and counseling are extremely helpful in helping ease the transition back into civilian life,” Zinke said.

Military Appreciation Month is one month a year and the members of are unanimous in agreement that it isn’t enough.

“The American soldier, sailor, airman and marine does not serve only a month out of the year, they serve 24/7,” Zinke said. “They do not do it for recognition, rather they do it for love of country.

“Having said this, I believe it’s up to us to always appreciate and recognize the sacrifice and service of every member of the armed forces,” Zinke said.

“It isn’t to me,” Daines said. “As the son of a Marine who served with the Billings-based 58th Rifle Company, I strongly believe we need to recognize the importance of our military every day just as they defend our freedoms everyday.”

“In America, we should thank our men and women in the armed forces every day,” Tester said. “They sacrifice so much for our freedom and we owe our American way of life to them.

“I want to personally say thank you to each and every member of our Armed Services and their families, past, present, and future.

“But just saying thank you and holding special recognition months are not enough,” Tester continued. “We need to honor these brave men and women with action. We need to honor them by ensuring that they have the tools to do their job in the field, by rejecting cuts to benefits to military families and by supporting them when their uniformed service is over.

“Actions speak louder than words and we need clear and decisive action that shows our troops we appreciate their sacrifice,” Tester said.