Top VA Official Says Veterans Center in Helena Not Needed

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — Existing services in Helena are more than adequate to meet the needs of local veterans and a veterans center isn’t needed, a top Veterans Administration official said in a letter to Montana military officials.

Dr. Robert Petzel, the agency’s undersecretary for health, wrote on behalf of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in a letter received by Montana officials on April 5.

“The Vet Center services currently available in Helena remain underutilized by eligible Veterans and their families,” Petzel wrote to Brig. Gen. John E. Walsh, the recently retired adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, and Joe Foster, administrator of the Montana Division of Veterans Affairs.

The Independent Record in a story published Saturday reports that Petzel was responding to a letter from Montana officials about a veterans center to complement the VA Montana Health Care System at Fort Harrison. Vet centers are places for veterans to drop in without appointments to visit with other veterans or get referrals or find out about available services. Some veterans say the centers offer more confidentiality than VA hospitals.

Montana Division of Veterans Affairs administrator Joe Foster on Thursday took part in a teleconference with the Montana Board of Veterans Affairs about a veterans center in Helena.

“It’s not going to happen in Helena for the foreseeable future, is the bottom line,” he told the board.

Diane Carlson Evans, a veterans’ advocate and Army nurse in Vietnam, said she and retired Gen. Gene Prendergast will continue working to bring a veterans center to the city.

“It’s no secret that the VA is underfunded,” she said. “And the VA has gone leaps and bounds to help our veterans. But the VA can only do so much with the funds they have.”

The Veterans Administration in Montana has faced criticism about providing mental health services, particularly in failing to staff and fully open a new in-patient mental health wing. Robin Korogi, the head of VA health services in Montana, recently transferred to Denver.

“Mental health services in Helena, Montana, are already lacking,” Evans said. “We have to make the first step and put the facility there, and we know that it’s going to save lives.”