Veterans services to expand in Billings, creating up to 70 jobs

The Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has approved construction to double the size of the Billings VA clinic, creating as many as 70 jobs, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., announced Friday in Billings.

Tester, who serves on both the Appropriations and Veterans Affairs Committees, also visited Red Lodge on Friday.

“(Veterans) need to get the benefits they fought for,” Tester said. “That's what this is all about.”

The announcement comes days after Tester pushed the secretary of Veterans Affairs to approve the second phase of construction on the Billings clinic after a monthslong delay. The Billings VA clinic opened in 2009.

Once construction is complete, the clinic is expected to provide several new services, including walk-in and specialty services unavailable at the existing clinic, dental services, mental health care services and some outpatient surgeries.

Flanked by dozens of applauding Montana veterans, Tester said the new facility will offer many of the services now available at Montana's only VA hospital at Fort Harrison.

Yellowstone County has the highest population of veterans in Montana. Because of distance and weather, many Billings-area veterans are forced to stay overnight in Helena when they go to Fort Harrison for treatment.

Jim Kerr, a Vietnam veteran from Billings, called Tester a “champion.”

“It's sad it took so long for anyone to recognize they should take care of those who took care of the country,” Kerr said.

Resources for the clinic's expansion will come from the VA's regular construction budget. Tester said Republicans in the House of Representatives are considering a plan to cut $278 million from the VA's construction budget, a move that could jeopardize the planned expansion.

In Red Lodge, Tester served as “chief cheerleader” for a kickoff celebration. The city of 2,483 people has become the first in Montana to become a Yellow Ribbon community for its support of soldiers and their families.

“I'm really jazzed about that,” Tester said. “It's the right thing to do. They did it. Now it's my turn to cheer them on.”

Tester recommended Red Lodge as a possible Yellow Ribbon community, and community leaders worked with the Montana National Guard to make it a reality. Minnesota is the only other state that has embraced the concept of Yellow Ribbon communities.

“For a community this size to have this kind of honor and designation is unusual,” said Glory Mahan, president of the Red Lodge City Council. “And every time Red Lodge can be first in anything, we're excited about it.”

The program is an extension of the Defense Department's Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which offers training and support to Guard and Reserve service members and their families before, during and after deployment.

Red Lodge is home to about 100 veterans whose service spans every war and conflict dating back to World War II, said John Toler, a Vietnam veteran and steward of the Beartooth Elks Lodge 534. But the number of veterans in the community is not the point, he said.

“I remember when we came home from Vietnam and the way we were treated,” Toler said. “It was pretty despicable. So, a lot of us are pretty enthused about the opportunity to help these families while they're deployed. This is a neat thing to be able to show our support to these individuals.”

Red Lodge leaders have wasted no time in formulating an action plan. Businesses have queued up to give discounts to veterans and their families, and hotel owners are exploring ways to help provide housing. The community wants to develop a resource system so that veterans and their families can call Red Lodge city officials for information that veterans may need. The Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce will serve as a resource center, and the Montana National Guard will use the community as a place to go for information.