A new veterans counselor will soon be helping Ravalli County veterans and their families at Valley Veterans Service Center in Hamilton.
Mike Warner, the center’s service officer, said the new position likely would not have happened so quickly without the voices of local veterans airing their concerns far and wide.
After the counselor who had been working in Ravalli County was reassigned to Missoula, Bitterroot Valley veterans banded together to send a letter to the Montana congressional delegation asking for assistance in resolving the issue quickly.
The letter began: “Ravalli County veterans and their families feel abandoned, lost and alone — we need help!”
There are currently 5,000 veterans in Ravalli County receiving support from the Veterans Administration, which accounts for only about half of the veterans in the Bitterroot Valley. The letter said there had been four veteran suicides in the last four months.
When Valley Veterans staff Dan Griffin and Warner traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for the need of a permanent counselor in Ravalli County in mid-November, they were surprised to learn they didn’t need an introduction.
“The senators, congressman and the VA, they already knew who we were,” said Warner. “They knew where Ravalli County was and they knew about our issues.
“The veterans here in Ravalli County put their voices together and made their needs heard,” Warner said. “Their voices were heard all the way back to Washington.”
As a result, a new veteran’s counselor for the Bitterroot Valley is scheduled to be hired on Dec. 10. A week later, the counselor will begin seeing her first clients. While Warner wasn’t able to release the counselor’s name Friday, he said she was a combat veteran from Stevensville.
Warner said the Veterans Administration also plans to send two additional counselors on a rotating basis from Missoula to Hamilton to ensure that veterans get the help they need.
“All of this happened in a record amount of time,” Warner said. “It shows that if you can put a bunch of people together, you can make a difference.”
It also shows the power that comes from a community that supports its veterans.
Ravalli County is the only county in the state that has a locally supported veterans’ center.
“We are unique,” Warner said. “What we’re doing here is unique. It’s sparked a lot of interest nationally. Others are looking at our model of providing veterans services from one local centralized location … We are taking the lead and pioneering the way that others might go.”
None of that would have been possible without the support of the local community members who have voted yes to levies to support the operation.
“People here in Ravalli County have stepped up and said we can do better to serve our veterans,” Warner said. “It’s humbling. It’s their generosity that has made this happen.
“In this instance, veterans came together and made their voices heard,” he said. “They got a win out of it.”
Mike Turner, a Vietnam veteran from Hamilton, said he’s anxious to see the therapeutic counseling for veterans and their families back on track, especially considering the fact that the holidays are approaching.
“That’s a time when people with trauma struggle,” Turner said. “I know that Mike and the guys in the office want to believe, but I’m 67 years old and I’ve seen the VA reduce benefits and jack everything around. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Turner said he is hopeful that the word will spread about the good work that’s being accomplished by the Valley Veterans Service Center and its potential to serve as a model for other counties in the state.
“We have this funding support here in Ravalli County that enables us to have this center,” he said. “It seems like there is a need to have the same thing occurring throughout the state.”
Turner said there’s a whole new generation of veterans who aren’t getting the services they need.
“We don’t have any young veterans at our meetings,” he said. “I know they are in turmoil, but they’re not getting any kind of care at all. We need to keep looking at that and keep asking ourselves how we can help them too.”