MT Standard: Welcome! Southwest Montana Veterans Home gets its first resident

by Mike Smith

On a gray, snowy morning, with most of the nearby East Ridge hidden in clouds, Bill Davis entered a cottage at the new Southwest Montana Veterans Home as its first resident.

Veterans and others lined both sides of the sidewalk and applauded as Davis, in a wheelchair and draped in a red-white-and-blue quilt, was given another before the cottage doors were opened for him.

“Welcome home, Bill,” said Gov. Greg Gianforte, echoing a greeting several folks had shouted along Davis’ short trek from the facility’s Community Center to Cottage 1. It is the first of five to open at the 10-acre site off of Blacktail Loop just south of Three Bears Alaska.

Davis will be joined by 59 fellow military veterans at the retirement home in the coming weeks, but the longtime Butte boy will always be the first.

“I can’t tell you how that feels because I’ve never done this before,” said Davis, who joined the Air Force in 1956 and spent 10 years with that branch before switching to the Army and serving his country for 10 more. He’s 82 now.

Ground was broken on the facility in July 2019, but it took years and years before that to cobble together the $20 million in state and federal dollars to make it reality. Finishing touches are being put on Cottage 2 and it should be ready in a few weeks.

A certification process for Medicaid, Medicare and the Veterans Administration is still underway and there is still some work to be done on the remaining cottages, but everything should be open and operating this summer, officials say.

Each cottage has 12 single bedrooms, a kitchen area, a dining room and a sprawling living room, with lots of windows, some offering fabulous views of the mountains – when it isn’t snowing. The cottage design is meant to provide a more comfortable home setting.

“This is a great day for Montana and a great day for veterans,” Gianforte told The Montana Standard after a flag-raising ceremony and before he toured two cottages. “So much work has gone into this.”

The home is designed primarily to serve veterans from Butte-Silver Bow and five other counties in southwest Montana: Anaconda-Deer Lodge, Beaverhead, Jefferson, Madison and Powell.

There are two other veterans retirement homes in the state, one in Glendive, 435 miles from Butte in far eastern Montana, and one in Columbia Falls, 232 miles away in far northwestern Montana. Veterans have long sought a home to serve southwest Montana.

Gianforte noted that there are waiting lists to get into the other homes.

“We have an obligation that we can never fully repay, but this is a big step in the right direction to make sure we take care of our veterans,” he said.

Democratic state Rep. Jim Keane of Butte, a longtime legislator who has also been a state senator, noted that he and other supporters “slugged it out for a number of years” to get all the funding pieces in place.

He said former state Sen. Jon Sesso of Butte and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester were instrumental in that effort, as were Mike Lawson and scores of other veterans from Butte and elsewhere. Many of them attended the groundbreaking ceremony in 2019, as did U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.

Local officials played a big part, too, and helped arrange water and sewer connections to the site. Commissioner Cindi Shaw and former Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer were among those applauding Davis on his way to the cottage. The land itself was donated by the Don Harrington Foundation.

“Now, actually seeing it built and somebody checking in, is a big deal,” Keane said. “It’s great for the veterans, it’s great for southwest Montana and it’s great for Butte. And now we will honor these guys and we will take care of them, just like they have taken care of us.”

Keane and others got $3.3 million included in a bonding package making its way through the current Legislature that would pay for construction of enclosed walkways between cottages and the community center at the veterans home, but no bill has won final approval.

Lawson, commander of the United Veterans Council in Butte, said fundraising efforts also are underway to build a sixth cottage. It would cost about $3 million, and he’d like to see another six cottages nearby someday.

“It’s just a dream in the future on my part and some of our part,” Lawson said. “There’s a need, but that’s a lot of money.”

The cottages are quite nice and seem larger on the inside than they look from the outside. Each bedroom is about the size of a hotel room and the restrooms are very spacious and tiled throughout, each with a shower and nozzles that can adjust to any height.

There is a hydraulic lift in each room to help get residents in and out of bed if needed, something that also helps staff.

“That’s a saving grace for everyone,” Navy veteran Eileen Greb explained to Gianforte during the tour. She also noted that windows in the bedrooms, dining rooms and living rooms are all low enough for residents in wheel chairs to see through – one of many details designed just for the facility.

The complex is overseen by the state but Eudoro Healthcare is providing onsite management and has hired 32 staff. It will employ 80 people when fully opened, including skilled nurses.