Missoulian: Groundbreaking held for new $31M VA Clinic in Missoula

by David Erickson

The cramped quarters of Missoula’s current Veterans Affairs clinic will only be needed until fall of 2021, when a new facility more than twice the size will open.

On Friday, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the new $31 million David J. Thatcher VA Clinic on the corner of West Broadway and Mary Jane Boulevard. When it’s complete, the new Community Based Outpatient Clinic will have more than 52,000 square feet of energy-efficient space.

According to the Montana VA Health Care System, Montana has one of the highest per capita populations in the United States, about 9.4% as of 2017. There were 96,369 total veterans in Montana that year, with 73,000 eligible for VA health services and only 47,000 of those enrolled with the VA health care system.

David J. Thatcher, a longtime Missoula resident, died at age 94 in 2016. He was a member of the famous Doolittle Raid over Tokyo during World War II. His son-in-law Jeff Miller gave a rousing speech about Thatcher’s mission, saying Thatcher didn’t consider himself a hero.

Both of Montana’s U.S. senators, Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester, were on hand. Tester is the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and pushed the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017.

“For far too long, veterans in western Montana had to make do with an undersized clinic and overworked staff, but no more,” Tester said in a statement. “This new facility will provide health care to many of Montana’s 47,000 veterans who use VA services, and give doctors, nurses and other medical staff an expanded and high-quality space to do their jobs, and I was thrilled to help jump-start it in the Senate. I’ll continue fighting tooth and nail to make sure that this project stays on track, and that VA does its part in delivering a facility that is worthy of our veterans’ service.”

Daines thanked Thatcher’s son-in-law for telling the story of his Doolittle Raid heroics and also thanked Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont. Gianforte sent a staff member to speak on his behalf.

“I want to thank everybody who worked so hard to make this day possible,” Daines said. “This was team ball to get this done. It takes both sides of the aisle to get an outcome like this. In this day of divided politics, and this sometimes-divided nation it’s nice to see the country come together for moments to see outcomes like this. The bottom line is the issue of veterans don’t have a red or blue jersey. This is about America and taking care of those who protect that flag no matter what political persuasion you might have.”

Dr. Judy Hayman, the director of the Montana VA, said the new facility will be served by public transportation and will have much more space and better parking. She said the new clinic will also allow increased contact and communication between veterans and providers.

Shelly Fyant, the chairwoman of the tribal council of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, noted that her ancestors used the Missoula Valley to gather nourishing bitterroot flower roots, a tradition still alive today.

She also noted that her ancestors were driven from their homeland in the Bitterroot Valley by white settlers.

“This is our aboriginal territory,” she said. “We were people, and still are people, that live with the land.”

She said that the new VA Clinic will help serve the many present and future Native American U.S. military veterans of Montana.

Tony Incashola, director of the Séliš-Qlispé Culture Committee, performed a blessing before the groundbreaking.

“Today we’re giving back respect, honor and memorializing great warriors past, present and future with the building of this clinic in the name of another great warrior, David J. Thatcher,” he said.