Daily Montanan: Tester, USS Billings crew honor Montana service on Veterans Day

by Darrell Ehrlick

LOCKWOOD – Two weeks ago, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester visited countries and the U.S. military near Ukraine, and after seeing the war and the people close up, he had a message for veterans and civilians on Veterans Day: They want what Americans take for granted.

As the chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, Tester saw first-hand the struggle in places like Lithuania and Poland, and he said it blew him away. Montana’s senior Senator was at Lockwood High School on Friday as part of a countywide celebration to honor veterans.

“They love freedom and love democracy in a way that, quite frankly, I’ve never seen,” Tester said. “Remember that just a couple of decades ago, they were living under communism. They were willing to give their lives and fight for the freedom and democracy that we’ve enjoyed since our inception.

“Like President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy said, ‘We want to be like you.’”

So Tester, who led the efforts this year to pass one of the most comprehensive reform of military legislation in decades by establishing a measure that would give victims of toxic burn pits more healthcare, credited veterans for making America the premiere example of democracy in the world.

“Veterans, thank you for giving us the country that we have today,” Tester said.

In addition to veterans from each military branch, part of the current U.S. Navy crew from the USS Billings was in attendance, back from nearly one year of being deployed outside of the United States. Most recently, the Billings is in the Caribbean, and crew members who are normally stationed in Florida spent the last couple of days experiencing nearly a foot of snow, coupled with near-zero temperatures.

The group, which included Commander Brett Seeley, the captain of the Billings, were featured as honored guests, and they keep in close contact with the namesake city through an alliance that is also led by Sharla Tester, Sen. Tester’s wife.

Tester honored the crew of the Billings while also pledging to hold the manufacturers of the littoral combat ships responsible for catastrophic design flaws with the ships.

“You know this class of ships has not been a glowing success,” Tester said, speaking directly to the sailors sitting in the front two rows. “With one exception. That’s the USS Billings. They have been because of the extraordinary work you and your fellow service members do.”

Seeley was featured as the keynote speaker. The 19-year Navy veteran told the crowd the crew had visited many veterans organizations and schools in the Billings area.

“Residents of this state are doers – and there’s that ancient saying, actions speak louder than words,” Seeley said. “Our future will be bright as long as our future includes these children who we met this week.”

Tester, who said he’ll determine sometime in 2023 whether he’ll run for another term in the U.S. Senate in 2024, said that after toxic burn pit legislation, he’ll continue to work on veterans issues including mental health and suicide, as well as housing for veterans.

“We have way, way too many homeless vets,” Tester said.

He also said that he’s willing to hold contractors accountable in the F-35 program, as well as the littoral combat ship, so that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for their design flaws.

He said recent changes in the Veterans Administration and the Tri-Care program need to be addressed too. Recently, it was reported that Express Scripts, the pharmacy benefit manager for the military, had eliminated 15,000 pharmacies and infusion centers from its list of providers, especially hurting rural states like Montana.

“They’re living up to the letter of the law,” Tester said of the VA. “But they’re not living up to the spirit, especially for a rural state.”

Tester, USS Billings crew honor Montana service on Veterans Day – Daily Montanan