A promise to keep: Some lawmakers lead way with programs, safety nets

The Missoulian

by Kevin Furey

More than 100,000 veterans live in Montana; only Alaska boasts more per-capita and Montana has the highest military volunteer rate in the country. As a veteran, I’m proud to call Montana my home and it’s a place I know I’ll always be welcome.

Veterans Day is a reminder of a promise made to every American veteran. Montana leaders have gone a long way toward keeping that promise to the men and women who served and continue to serve our country.

In Montana, veterans face different challenges. Montana vets often travel long distances to receive medical care. Thanks to Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., for his work to bring attention to the plight of the rural veteran, the Veterans Administration authorized new veterans centers in Kalispell and Great Falls, helping soldiers readjust to life at home when they return from active duty. He has also worked to locate a new veterans’ health clinic in Libby.

We need to work harder to identify at-risk veterans in need of health care, treatment and support. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suicide and homelessness among our veteran population are deeply troubling, but the solution is not out of reach. We are already seeing homelessness of veterans from the current conflicts, and that will only increase as young veterans use up their social safety nets. We have only recently been able to cope with veterans from the Vietnam War, but the new demands placed on the VA system from returning veterans will quickly overwhelm what we have created. It is crucial that we acknowledge this and increase programs at the VA to deal with the tidal wave of young veterans in need of care, especially mental health care.

We have Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to thank for the Post Deployment Health Assessment Act of 2009. It requires the military to provide in-person, mental health screenings for every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine after they return from combat, and every six months thereafter, for two years.

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon is a program that gives all National Guard families better counseling services before, during and after a loved one is deployed. It provides counseling and financial planning to help families at home when their loved ones put their lives on hold to serve our country.

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, a success in Montana, was recently expanded to all 50 states. Both of our U.S. senators supported the measure. In the future, I hope Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., will follow their lead and recognize the value of this program.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed into law a $50,000 benefit for Montana National Guard members who die in the line of duty, and an extension of the National Guard life insurance reimbursement.

And vets across the country won a huge victory when Tester passed legislation locking in a mileage reimbursement rate for disabled vets who travel to receive VA health care. Thanks to Tester’s help, the VA has raised the rate from 11 cents per mile to 41.5 cents per mile. Before the Tester bill, a veteran making the 500-mile trek from Ekalaka to Ft. Harrison would only be reimbursed $55 – probably not even enough to pay for gas. (A federal employee making the same trip, however, would be reimbursed $275.)

Veterans Day cannot be the only day we support and honor the men and woman who defend America at home and around the world, including the 31 Montanans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A promise made must be a promise kept, every day.

Kevin Furey is a 26-year-old Iraq War veteran. He recently returned to his hometown of Missoula after his second tour to Iraq. On his second tour, Furey oversaw more than $3 million in reconstruction projects.