When U.S. Rep. Steve Daines and his staff toured the Flathead Valley Community College Aug. 21, FVCC President Jane Karas employed the adjective “state-of-the-art” at nearly every stop along the way.
At the Center for Nursing and Health Science, Montana’s freshman Republican congressman interacted with a “state-of-the-art” mannequin programmed to simulate real-life hospital emergencies, including childbirth and cardiac arrest. At the occupational trades building, Daines learned about “state-of-the-art” computer-simulated programs that allow students to acquire commercial licenses and learn to drive an 18-wheeler, as well as run excavators, graders and loaders.
“How can you top this?” Daines asked.
It was an “impressive” tour, Daines said, and an example of a rural school whose technological advancements have opened up a new world of educational opportunities.
And while the first stop of the tour was arguably the most low-tech, it made the deepest impression on Daines.
Though not bristling with gizmos, the college’s brand new Veterans’ Center – featuring a computer lab and some modest workstations – is a unique and vital resource at the two-year school.
Every year, about 10 percent of FVCC’s 2,000 enrolled students are veterans. Many require assistance applying for educational benefits and navigating the complex web of Veterans Affairs, while others need emotional support acclimating to civilian life after returning from combat duty.
Prior to Daines’ visit, a recent graduate and Iraq veteran named Andrew Hart spoke at a commemoration ceremony for the veterans’ center, which was attended by several dozen vets enrolled at the school.
Hart, 29, is headed to Carroll College his undergraduate degree in philosophy and political science before pursuing a master’s in public administration. He recently returned from a prestigious internship in Washington, D.C., where he worked on U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s Subcommittee for Homeland Security, researching the finer points of government contracts, an assignment born of former National Security Administration employee Edward Snowden’s leaks of confidential information.
Despite his success, it wasn’t always an easy path. When Hart first returned from Iraq in 2010 and enrolled in classes, he didn’t think he would last long.
“I was still pretty raw after coming out of the army and finishing my combat tour,” he said, recalling how he’d been shaken to the core by a literature course called “War and Peace,” which tracked America’s conflicts abroad through various readings.
“That literature hit a lot closer to home than I was prepared for. At one point it was so emotional, and I was so emotionally raw that I was about ready to throw in the towel,” Hart said. “The professor, Jim Soular, is a Vietnam veteran and he took me under his wing and kind of mentored me through that process. The class turned into a therapeutic way to examine some of my own personal experiences in the military, which has led me to become big veterans advocate.”
Working alongside Soular, Hart wanted to make sure that veterans at FVCC had available resources to keep them on track when the way forward seemed murky or unnavigable.
“The vet population is significant at FVCC. The veterans’ center is a tremendous resource, and will help more vets be successful in their academic pursuit,” he said.
Karas said the college’s veteran population has grown more robust since the U.S. military began deescalating, and the students often have special needs.
“For a community college we really have a significant veteran population, and we have done a lot to support our veteran population,” she said. “As more and more veteran students enroll here, we know we need a space to serve some of their special needs, whether they’re there for school work, counseling or to receive financial benefits.”
Visiting the center, Daines emphasized his commitment to Montana’s military men and women, particularly as they return to their hometowns and begin looking to the future.
“I’m the son of a veteran. I have veterans on my staff and this is fantastic,” Daines said.
“If any student ever needs someone to speak with, I am available,” Denny Lenoir, Daines’ director of Veterans Affairs, told FVCC’s veterans affairs coordinator Sherry Taylor.
Just back from a three-week trip to Israel, Daines said he maintained that a strong defense is the best foundation for securing peace and stability in the Middle East.
Returning to Montana and visiting the Flathead Valley as part of his statewide jobs tour, Daines also visited a Habitat for Humanity housing project in Columbia Falls and went on a tour of PROOF, Inc., a precision rifle manufacturer.
The name of another Flathead Valley firearms and aerospace component manufacturing company, Kalispell-based Sonju Industrial Inc., came up on Daines’ Israel trip, he said.
Sonju Industrial Inc., whose business developer is state Sen. Jon Sonju, R-Kalispell, has joined Raytheon Company to work on the David’s Sling Weapon System, a joint missile defense agency and Israel Missile Defense Organization program to develop and deploy a mid-tier missile defense system for Israel.
“I met with the project manager of the missile defense system and all of a sudden he is talking about Jon Sonju,” Daines said. “I could hear artillery fire one minute and the next minute we are getting a debriefing on a weapons system that is saving lives, and there’s a Flathead Valley connection.”
Daines said the intersection of Montana’s quality workforce and the quality of life the state offers isn’t surprising, but it never ceases to amaze him.
“We are building a world class work force in Montana and preparing the next generation so their kids and grandkids can stay here and make a living while living the lifestyle that Montana’s care about so deeply,” he said.
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