Tester meets with female veterans, presents medals to Vietnam, Gulf War vets

Billings Gazette

by Zach Benoit

For Sen. Jon Tester, Friday afternoon was all about honoring and listening to Montana veterans.

During a small ceremony at his Billings offices, Tester presented four service awards each to Vietnam veteran Paul Walborn and Gulf War veteran Mark Hamill — medals they should have received after their service ended.

“It’s important to me to ensure that all veterans get the recognition they deserve,” Tester said.

First up was Walborn, who joined the Navy in 1963. In 1965 he was part of a convoy from Okinawa, Japan, to Vietnam that helped transport Marine Corps artillery and helped bring equipment up the Perfume River in support of the war.

When he left the service, his forms were correct but, for some reason, the Navy had no record of him serving in Vietnam.

Beginning in the summer of 2011, Tester’s office helped Walborn correct the missing records.

“I’m kind of overwhelmed,” he said after the ceremony. “I didn’t even know I’d earned some of these.”

Tester presented Walborn with the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with a Bronze Star, the Meritorious Unit Commendation Ribbon and the Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Hamill was a member of the U.S. Army Reserve program and was sent to Saudi Arabia with a medevac unit in 1990. As a helicopter crew chief, he was tasked with making sure they were ready to fly on short notice.

Upon returning to American soil, Hamill and the rest of the maintenance platoon did not receive any medals from the Army, Tester said.

Hamill said he’s been working with Veterans Affairs to correct the mistake for about seven years.

“It was awesome to finally get them,” he said. “It’s just a great feeling.”

After the ceremony, Tester held a roundtable discussion with about a half dozen women from around Montana to hear their concerns and suggestions as female veterans.

Much of the conversation focused on addressing problems women have faced during their service.

Dr. Natasha Houston, with the Billings Vet Center, said many women have been sexually assaulted or traumatized during their service and are often reluctant to come forward or talk about the incidents.

“It’s often not looked at in the same way as someone who has combat PTSD,” she said.

When asked by Tester how to address those concerns, Houston said that more education and awareness is necessary, as well as a place the women feel comfortable receiving services.

“A woman should be able to go into a an environment where she feels comfortable, a place with access to care and comfort,” she said.

Casey Elder, an Iraq war veteran, agreed. She said she’s seen women discredited during their service and that it impacts them when they need help afterwards.

“I see a lot of women who feel like they don’t deserve to ask for help,” she said. “There needs to be more focus on making women feel more comfortable in the military.”

She also expressed concern about the availability of some medical services, including that of an OBGYN.

Jonna Brenton, the Montana women veteran program manager for Veterans Affairs, said improvements have been made in recent years to speed up access to numerous programs.

“We’re really trying to meet the needs of women,” she said.