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Guest Column

Fighting for Montana’s Veterans is a Sacred Obligation

Memorial Day is about more than just paying our respects

By Jon Tester

Growing up as a kid in Big Sandy, I learned from a young age about the incredible service and sacrifice of our servicemembers when I played Taps at the funerals of veterans of both World Wars. It’s something that has always stuck with me, and I carry with me every day.

Montana is the greatest state in the greatest country in the world. But it didn’t get that way by accident. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have fought to defend our freedom and protect our democracy, with many paying the ultimate sacrifice to keep us free. Our country stands on the shoulders of these fallen heroes.

They are the men and women who represent the very best of Montana, and of America. And on Memorial Day, we remember and honor each of those who lost their lives in service to this country. Montana has a long and proud history of service in the armed forces, and we understand better than most that freedom is never free. 

That’s why Memorial Day is about more than just paying our respects. It’s about making sure we’re honoring these heroes every day by supporting their loved ones and continuing to do right by their fellow fighting men and women. This is a fight I’m proud to wage on behalf of Montana’s veterans and their families as Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The cost of war isn’t just paid on the battlefield. For those veterans who do return home, it’s often paid for the remainder of their lives—whether it’s overcoming the invisible wounds of war, or health conditions or illnesses directly related to their military service. Each of these men and women stepped up and served their country with a solemn promise: that if they came home changed by their service, we would take care of them.

Montanans sent me to Washington to fight for that value, and it’s one that guided me throughout the fight for the PACT Act. For far too long, our nation failed to honor its promises to veterans exposed to toxins in conflicts across the globe – from Agent Orange to burn pits. That changed after we fought like hell alongside generations of veterans to get the PACT Act signed into law, and it is already delivering critical health care and benefits to all eras of toxic-exposed veterans and their families.

Last week, VA approved its one millionth PACT Act disability claim. This milestone is further proof of how this law is making a real difference for veterans and their families, like Travis Tikka from Missoula who was battling a terminal condition related to his burn pit exposure in Somalia. Before he passed, Travis said while he knew he would not live long enough to enjoy his PACT Act benefits, he had comfort his wife Sara and their two young children would be taken care of under PACT Act survivor benefits.

But there’s still work to be done to honor our promises. Montana veterans face unique challenges D.C. bureaucrats don’t understand, and I’m focused on ensuring they get the health care and benefits they have earned during their service, including life-saving mental health care. Working with veterans and local community members in every corner of our state, I’m proud to have helped open new veterans’ clinics across Montana, as well as the Southwest Montana Veterans’ Home in Butte. But, veterans across Montana need VA to redouble its efforts to provide the best and most timely health care possible – whether it’s at VA or in our communities. It’s what I demand of VA, and what veterans deserve – regardless of where they live. I will hold VA accountable to that.  

Truly honoring our fallen heroes takes real actions, not just words. While we can never fully repay the debt we owe to our fallen servicemembers, it’s on us to honor their legacy as we celebrate the freedoms we have today. These are the heroes that have made Montana the Last Best Place, and our country the greatest in the world. I’ll never stop fighting for them.

That’s a promise – and our sacred obligation.

Jon Tester is Democratic U.S. Senator and serves as Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.