Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Tester, VA secretary meet with veterans at Montana State

by Melissa Loveridge

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and Sen. Jon Tester visited Montana State University on Tuesday afternoon to hear from a group of veterans about how the VA could serve them and their families better.

The roundtable discussion was attended by veterans of a variety of ages and a variety of backgrounds, including some VA employees. The actual session was closed to the media, though Tester and McDonough answered media questions afterward.

According to Tester, some of the issues brought up included a lack of staffing for VA clinics, supporting women veterans and expanding access to VA care for rural veterans.

McDonough said that veterans aren’t “complainers,” and that the questions and issues that were brought up during the session were concrete.

“It was very common sense, matter of fact, back and forth,” McDonough said. “(The roundtable) almost felt like a problem solving session.”

Bozeman was one of several stops on McDonough’s trip to Montana, his first official trip since being confirmed as VA secretary in February. Prior to serving as VA secretary, McDonough was chief of staff for former President Barack Obama.

He said his trip to Montana was centered around a major guiding question: “What do we need to be doing better?”

At the post-round table question and answer session, Tester said a few of the biggest obstacles facing veterans in rural areas is outreach and access.

“I think the VA has gotten a lot better over time, it’s making sure that we’re reaching out to veterans to let them know that the VA is a different place than it was 15 years ago,” Tester said.

Joe Schumacher, the director of veteran services at MSU, said he felt like McDonough and Tester, who is also the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, were really listening to the concerns and ideas brought forward during the discussion.

“I just thought it was really neat that they came out and put on this event to hear from us, ask questions and also answer questions,” Schumacher said. “Even the secretary had a pen and he was writing down notes and seemed very genuine and authentic in his responses.”

Student veterans issues can be as diverse as veterans themselves and range from the expected – things like health and mental health care – to ones that might be less commonly thought of, like child care and paying for college.

The Veteran Services and Veteran Support Center on campus aims to help student veterans through all of those issues and help them transition from military to civilian, college-student life. It also serves as a space for veterans to build community with each other, something Schumacher said many miss after leaving active service military duty.

“We are their advocates and advisors, every step of the way during that process,” Schumacher said. “We know that student veterans sometimes face different challenges than other students do and so we really try to meet these veterans where they’re at with the resources they have and the challenges they have and just kind of say hey, you’re not alone.”