Northwest Montana Veterans Applaud Tester During Kalispell Campaign Stop

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester leaned into his record of expanding healthcare services for veterans during a stop in Kalispell last Friday. The campaign event marked the launch of “Veterans for Tester,” a group of 153 retired services members campaigning in support of the Democrat.  

By Denali Sagner
U.S. Senator Jon Tester holds a roundtable discussion with veterans in Kalispell on June 21, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester gathered with northwest Montana military veterans on Friday afternoon for the launch of “Veterans for Tester,” a group of retired service members supporting the Democratic senator in his 2024 bid for reelection.

“I take my instructions from veterans, and I take those ideas and put them into effect,” Tester said, addressing the group of veterans at McGarvey Law in downtown Kalispell.

“Veterans for Tester” is a coalition of 153 military veterans campaigning in support of the senator. The group is being launched in conjunction with a statewide TV and digital ad campaign.  

Veterans at the event lauded Tester and criticized Republican businessman Tim Sheehy, who has pitched an expensive fight to oust the three-term Democrat.

“The group that’s in this room right now, most of them have met with you over the last eight years, or your representatives. You kept your promise to us, and we want to thank you for that. You have our backs,” John Burgess, a Navy veteran from Somers, said.

Tester’s tenure in the Senate has been defined by work on veterans issues — a record he highlighted during the campaign stop and one that his campaign has leaned into ahead of a competitive race against Sheehy. The senator is the chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, a position through which he has pushed significant expansions to healthcare programs for veterans.

Tester and Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas in 2019 introduced the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, a mental health expansion bill named for a Montana veteran who died by suicide in 2018. The law, which was signed by former President Donald Trump in 2020, expanded mental health services in rural areas and placed suicide prevention coordinators in U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.

The senator in 2021 sponsored the Deborah Sampson Act, which earmarked dedicated healthcare services for female veterans. Under the law, the VA created an Office of Women’s Health, staffed every VA clinic with a women’s health provider and increased resources for survivors of military sexual trauma.

Most recently, Tester spearheaded the effort to pass the PACT Act, a historic expansion in healthcare for veterans harmed by exposure to toxic chemicals during their service. The bill reversed a longstanding requirement that disabled veterans prove that their illness was caused by service-related toxic exposures and poured nearly $800 billion into expanded healthcare services.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester holds a roundtable discussion with veterans in Kalispell on June 21, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In the year after the PACT Act’s passage, the VA conducted 4.2 million toxic exposure screenings and approved over 360,000 PACT Act related healthcare claims. The VA approved 3,865 PACT Act related claims in Montana.

“Everybody in this room knows it’s absolutely critical that you win your Senate seat back against this guy from Minnesota, Sheehy, whatever his name is,” an audience member told Tester.

Another veteran said that while Montana has four congressional representatives, Tester is the state’s only “legislator.”

“The other guys just say ‘no’ to everything. They don’t do a damn thing for us,” the attendee added.

“People in Montana did not send me, and I would not have went, if they sent me to play politics. They sent me to try and make sure that our kids and our grandkids have the same opportunity that my parents and grandparents gave me,” Tester said.

Sheehy in his fight to oust Tester has underscored his background as a Navy SEAL and tied the senator to what he describes as the failed policies of the Biden administration. Sheehy in social media posts has blamed Tester for high veteran suicide rates and erroneously claimed that, under Tester, the VA has provided benefits to undocumented immigrants.

The incorrect claim that the VA provides healthcare for undocumented immigrants comes from a longstanding agreement between the VA and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in which ICE pays the VA to help process payments for healthcare costs for migrants in their custody, according to reporting by Military Times. The VA also provides processing services to the Department of Defense and the Indian Health Service, among other agencies. The arrangement between the VA and ICE has been in place since 2002.

John Herrington, a Navy veteran and former NASA astronaut who now lives in Marion, told the Beacon that Tester is “doing the right things, not just for me as a vet with the VA, but for the people of Montana.”

“Nobody lies about getting shot in their arm,” Terry Beezley, an Air Force veteran from Eureka, said, alluding to inconsistent accounts that Sheehy has shared on the campaign trail about a gunshot wound in his arm.

“With what Jon’s done with the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and everything, he’s been great,” Beezley added. “Everybody in his office, they’ve helped us out a lot. Not only us personally, but people up in our area.”

The race between Tester and Sheehy is set to be one of the most competitive, and most expensive, in the country, as Republicans attempt to oust Tester and regain control of the Senate. Despite Montana’s increasingly conservative political makeup, Tester has held onto his seat for three terms, leaning into his moderate policy record and Montana roots.

[email protected]