Billings Gazette: Tester honors veterans who help veterans during ceremony in Lockwood

by Nicholas Slater

Montana comes together every Nov. 11 to thank the men and women who fight to keep this state a treasure. Sen. Jon Tester made the trek to Lockwood High School for a ceremony to show his appreciation this Veterans Day.  

The ceremony honored the men and women of the Billings area who served in the military, and those who gave their lives in the line of duty.

The Democratic senator was joined by Billings Mayor Bill Cole, Yellowstone County Commissioner Denis Pitman and USS Billings captain, Commander Brett Seeley.

Tester, chairman of the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee, focused on the health and well-being of veterans, gave thanks to retired service members, and highlighted recent legislation to aid veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

“I’m proud our country came together earlier this year to finally do right by our toxic-exposed veterans through my bipartisan PACT Act. This law was made possible by Montana veterans and advocates who never took their foot off the gas, and together we’ll keep fighting to deliver for veterans, just as they have delivered for us,” said Tester.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 was created to aid toxic-exposed veterans obtain the healthcare and benefits they are owed from the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to Tester’s website 

Seeley was the keynote speaker of the ceremony and a 19-year serviceman. He thanked the city of Billings for the continued effort of multiple organizations within the community to aid his ship and crew.

Accompanying Seeley were members of his crew, nicknamed the Thundercats. The USS Billings is currently deployed in the Caribbean, and the crew was brought in for the Veterans Day celebration.

During the ceremony Tester handed local veterans and civilians awards that signified their impact on the veteran community.

One of the veterans honored was Blake Fuhriman founder of the Veterans Navigation Network. The VNN, based in Yellowstone County, works to support veterans in their transition to civilian life. The main method used is peer-to-peer mentorship where veterans who have already transitioned back into civilian life, help an outgoing serviceman transition.

“I will continue to work to give the veterans what they have earned,” said Tester. “That includes the benefits, healthcare, housing and education that they deserve.”

One of the things they’ve earned is treatment for exposure to toxic burn pits, Tester has said. He has championed the PACT Act. As many as 3.5 million combat veterans have been exposed to toxics while serving, according to the Department of Defense. It is unknown how many suffer from the related medical conditions, in part because Veterans Affairs has kept inquiries about toxic exposure to a minimum.

Much work still needs to be done to support veterans, Tester said Friday. 

What’s next is to deal with suicide, and housing, he said. “There are too many homeless vets. There’s too much going on with suicide. We need to continue to look for options.” 

While the “red wave” didn’t materialize on election day as Republicans had predicted, conservatives had much more success in Montana than the nation.

“I’ve said this before, the default position for Montanans is to vote Republican unless they give you a reason to vote for you,” Tester said. “We’ve got to have candidates will to go out and beat the street and work hard.” 

Everyone is going to read the recent election results differently, he added. 

“This election was about people being sick of division and sick of people who divide,” he said. “People don’t want people throwing bombs for no reason, people making up stuff just to make their case.” 

On the possibility of his own reelection campaign in 2024, he said “I haven’t talked to my wife and family and kids yet.”

Tester honors veterans who help veterans during ceremony in Lockwood (