Senate Passes Tester-Backed Critical Defense Bill that Includes Key Tester Priorities for Malmstrom, Montana Air National Guard, Overdue Benefits for Agent Orange Exposure, Vets & Rural Mental Health

Senator secures key investments for Malmstrom, Montana Air National Guard; package includes bills to increase mental health care for servicemembers and farmers

U.S. Senator Jon Tester secured a number of key defense priorities in the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—which passed the Senate today 86-14. The bill includes a number of important provisions championed by Tester that will strengthen military bases across the country, including Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Air National Guard, and expand services for servicemembers, veterans, and military families.

“It’s pretty simple: keeping Montanans safe starts with making critical investment in our nation’s military and national defense,” said Tester. “This bipartisan bill boosts resources for our troops on the front lines, strengthens our nation’s critical ICBM mission, and invests in the modernization of our Air National Guard’s C-130 fleet. And I’m particularly thrilled it includes my legislation to provide mental health care to Guardsmen and Reservists as well as folks in rural America, and finally gives our Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange access to the benefits and health care they earned. As we inch closer to the finish line, I’ll keep pushing to ensure we’re fighting for our men and women in uniform in Montana and across the country every step of the way.”

The National Defense Authorization Act sets funding levels and policies for the Department of Defense (DoD). In addition to providing a 3.1 percent pay raise to servicemembers, the bill will also provide hazard pay and 180 days of medical care for National Guard and Reserve servicemembers deployed to fight on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Malmstrom Air Force Base

Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base is one of only three military bases across the country that house intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The current fleet of ICBMs were first developed in the 1960s. The 2021 NDAA includes a number of Tester-backed investments in the maintenance and modernization of our nation’s ICBM force, including those at Malmstrom:

  • $1.5 billion for research and development of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), our nation’s future nuclear deterrent program. This money is also authorized to begin the construction and transition from current Minuteman III missile systems to the GBSD system.
  • $25 million authorized for the construction of the Weapons Storage and Maintenance Facility at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
  • $194 million to fully support the replacement of the Air Force’s UH-1N Huey with the MH-139 Grey Wolf.
  • $47 million for procurement of Minuteman III modernization to ensure the viability of our nation’s current strategic deterrent.
  • $50 million to support the Defense Community Infrastructure Program which will provide grants, conclude cooperative agreements, and supplemental funds available under other federal programs to assist states and local governments in addressing deficiencies in community infrastructure projects or facilities that are located outside of military installations but that support military installations.
  • $400 million for ICBM modernization research, development, test and evaluation.

Montana Air National Guard C-130 Mission

The 120th Airlift Wing is a unit of the Montana Air National Guard, stationed at Great Falls Air National Guard Base at Great Falls International Airport, Montana where they fly the C-130H Hercules. The 120th Airlift Wing serves a dual mission participating in the defense of the United States and in response to state declared emergencies. For years, Tester has been a champion for the 120th Airlift Wing ensuring vital modernizations and upgrades to the C-130 fleet. In this legislation, he successfully secured:

  • $26 million for procurement for C-130 modification and upgrades.
  • $45 million for C-130 research, development, testing, and evaluation.

Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act

Following sustained efforts from Tester, the NDAA also includes his landmark legislation requiring the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide benefits to veterans suffering from conditions related to Agent Orange exposure—including Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism. Tester urged his colleagues on the Senate floor yesterday to support his amendment, bringing Vietnam veterans suffering from diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange one step closer to receiving critical care and benefits they’ve earned. Tester’s amendment was passed overwhelmingly by the Senate with a vote of 94-6.

Care and Readiness Enhancement (CARE) for Reservists Act

The annual defense bill also includes two critical mental health bills spearheaded by Tester aimed at curbing the rising rate of suicide among servicemembers. Tester’s Care and Readiness Enhancement (CARE) for Reservists Act will improve Guardsmen and Reservists’ access to consistent mental health services, regardless of their deployment status, and authorize the DoD to fund needed behavioral or mental healthcare. The bill will also allow members of the Guard and Reserve to access Vet Centers for mental health screening and counseling, employment assessments, education training and other services to help them return to civilian life. Tester has championed this bill in Congress since 2015.

Seeding Rural Resilience Act

Tester fought to include his Seeding Rural Resilience Act in NDAA, which aims to curb the rising rate of farmer suicides across the country by implementing programs that provide voluntary stress management training and establishing partnerships between the Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture to create a $3 million public service announcement campaign to increase public awareness of farm and ranch stress and destigmatize mental health care in rural communities.

In addition to successfully including a number of historic bills in the annual defense bill, Tester pushed to include legislation to honor fallen soldiers of the Army’s First Infantry Division, by adding their names to the First Division Monument located on White House grounds in Washington, D.C. He also spearheaded an amendment to provide legal services at VA facilities for veterans, spouses, and dependents—regardless of their discharge status—on a pro bono basis, and to establish new legal assistance clinics, or enhance existing legal assistance clinics or other pro bono efforts.