Daily Inter Lake: Tester, Zinke mark Veterans Day in Bigfork

by Kate Heston

Democrat Sen. Jon Tester was joined by Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke at a Veterans Day assembly at Bigfork High School on Friday where the two shared common ground on their efforts to take care of veterans.

“There are some things that transcend politics… and while the good Senator [Tester] and I may be on the opposite side of the aisle on politics … this is not that,” said Zinke, a former Navy SEAL.

Tester spoke of his efforts in Congress to assist former servicemen and women, highlighting the construction of a new Veterans Affairs health care center in the valley and the passage of the PACT Act. 

The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, passed last year and extended benefits for servicemen and women exposed to toxic substances while in uniform. Tester, a Democrat and chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, played a key role in getting the legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk. 

“Here in the Treasure State we understand that freedom is not free … That is why honoring our veterans is more than just saying thank you for your service. It is also about ensuring that [they] get the care and the benefits and the respect that they deserve and that they have earned when they come home after their service,” Tester said in his speech. 

He also celebrated the impending opening of a state-of-the-art Veterans Affairs clinic, which is slated to start operations in Kalispell in 2025.

The facility, planned to be nearly twice the size of the existing VA clinic in Kalispell, will be located on the northwest corner of Reserve Place and Old Reserve Drive, near Glacier High School. The lease for the 22,1280-square-foot clinic was awarded May 16 to Matterhorn Capital, LLC.

The existing Kalispell clinic served more than 4,800 veterans in the area in 2023. The new facility can accommodate nearly 6,000 veterans.

“I’m proud to wage this fight on behalf of Montana’s veterans and families,” Tester said. “…They make our state the greatest state in the greatest country in the world.

Zinke spent 23 years with the Navy SEALs, earning a Bronze Star and rising to the rank of commander before retiring in 2008. Though the world is full of threats, the American public should feel confident in its armed forces, he said. 

“There is no force, no organization … that is better than ours. Period,” Zinke said. 

Montanans are a part of a “great effort” called America, Zinke said. Veterans Day, he said, is an opportunity to meditate on the fact that freedom isn’t free. 

“When you serve and you give an oath to the Constitution, that oath doesn’t end when you leave the service, it just begins,” Zinke said. 

Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican and member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, was not in attendance, but did submit a letter that was read aloud for attendees. 

“We as a nation are in debt to [veterans’] sacrifice,” Rosendale wrote. 

Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, also submitted letters that were read on their behalf. Both missives highlighted the history of service, and appreciation for that service, possessed by Montana. 

The assembly also included historical information about the holiday and recognized residents for their service. Members of the American Legion Auxiliary handed out poppies at the assembly entrance, a symbol of the sacrifices made in war.

“The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” read an Abraham Lincoln quote included in a pamphlet for the assembly.