VA to open Vet Center in Helena this fall

by James DeHaven – Independent Record

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Tuesday announced the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will open the center — which will provide confidential mental health screenings, suicide prevention, family counseling and other services to help veterans transition back into civilian life — sometime in October.

The nearest such center is a two-hour round trip from Helena, and similar services to treat the “unseen wounds of war” aren’t always available at VA hospitals, Tester said in a conference call with reporters.

“That’s why these centers are so important,” he added. “Veterans would rather go to Vet Centers, where their care is more personal, and they can talk to another veteran one-on-one.”

Tester said the VA is yet to settle on a specific location or cost for the center, which will be initially staffed with one mental health counselor and one outreach specialist, though he said staffing could ramp up in accordance with demand.

The two-term senator said services provided at the facility will be available to combat veterans and their families, as well as active duty military, including those stationed at Helena’s Fort Harrison.

Funding for the center will come out of some $15 million in VA appropriations set aside in December to build Vet Centers around the country.

Tuesday’s announcement comes five years after Tester, the top Democrat on the subcommittee that funds the VA, first started pushing to land one of those centers in the Helena Valley.

Diane Carlson Evans, a Helena Vietnam veteran, said it was well worth the wait.

“In 1979, with the first Vet Center that was opened, it was an experiment,” Evans said. “That experiment has moved forward and proven itself to be so successful we now have 300 centers all across the United States.

“It’s fantastic that we’ll now be 301 here in Helena.”

Montana is home to four brick-and-mortar Vet Centers and two mobile facilities.

Tester helped secure funding for two of those centers, in Kalispell and Great Falls, in 2009.