Daines visits National Guard at airport as delegation works to support troops

BELGRADE — The Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport sat largely empty when Sen. Steve Daines and his wife, Cindy, arrived on Tuesday to give lunch to the National Guard members stationed there.

The National Guard has been screening and checking the temperatures of passengers at Montana airports and rail stations for the past few weeks. They have been working without the benefits many other federal employees receive. Daines, along with Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte, is hoping to change that.

“While many of us are working out of our homes, our National Guard members and our health care heroes are all on the front lines keeping us safe,” Daines, a Bozeman Republican, said. “I think it’s important we do everything we can to ensure they’re being taken care of.”

On Monday, Daines sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, urging him to provide hazard pay to National Guard members who are responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Hazard pay is typically given to those who face perilous conditions while working for the Department of Defense.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is currently our nation’s greatest challenge and our National Guard is being asked to interact with this dangerous virus on a daily basis,” Daines wrote.

Two weeks ago, Daines sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking that active National Guard members be eligible for TRICARE, the health insurance program for uniformed service members, retirees and their families. He said some National Guard members may have lost their jobs and, as a result, no longer have health insurance.

Daines, who is seeking reelection, announced Tuesday that Trump has since made the National Guard eligible for TRICARE.

Tester, a Democrat from Big Sandy, has also pushed for additional resources for the National Guard and said Tuesday that he will continue to do so.

On March 20, he sent a letter to Esper requesting that the National Guard receive “full benefits” and protections, which includes TRICARE health coverage, access to military hospitals and retirement points for service.

As the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Tester and chairman Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, sent a letter to Esper on April 1, again urging for National Guard members to receive full federal benefits.

“The men and women of the National Guard who are responding to the COVID-19 crisis are risking their own health and safety to protect our health care workers, small businesses, and communities,” Tester said in a statement. “So ensuring these brave folks get hazard pay and access to the same benefits as their active duty counterparts is a top priority.”

A spokesperson for Gianforte, a Bozeman Republican who is running for governor, said the congressman supports providing additional benefits like hazard pay to the National Guard members working to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, Daines thanked the four on-duty National Guard members for their work as they awaited passengers from a commercial arrival from Seattle and a private plane coming to the Yellowstone Jet Center.

Technical Sgt. Andrew Wajer, a Bozeman resident and engineer for Pocket NC, said it has been an adjustment to switch from his regular job to serving at the airport, but the work has been manageable. Passengers understand what the National Guard is doing. As of Tuesday, they hadn’t needed to refer any passengers to a health care provider for further screening.