BILLINGS — According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 47,000 Montanans are enrolled veterans in the Montana VA healthcare system. But how many of those 47,000 veterans have easy access to that healthcare?
Dylan Jefferson is a U.S. Army veteran living in Billings. He is also a Crow tribal member who recently accepted a job with the VA doing tribal outreach.
Jefferson told MTN News that his job with the VA is important—and while those living on a reservation have access to healthcare—it oftentimes can be difficult to reach.
“It’s even more scarce on the reservation. The Native veterans, we have access to healthcare, but when it comes to the veterans, that’s where I come in,” Jefferson said. “I reach out to the veterans who can’t make it to these far cities. I show them in the office right there with a screen, and we talk to a doctor who's in Denver, we get them their needs, whatever they need. If they’re having issues with any claims, mental health, any physical stuff."
Jefferson's wife, Julia, said Crow veterans used to be honored for their sacrifice of going to war, but over time, that respect has faded away.
The veterans on reservations were once viewed as the leaders of their house and had the honor of eating first during mealtimes and leading prayers, according to Julia. But now she believes these veterans, like her husband, are seemingly forgotten about.
Julia also said that all of the trash on the Crow reservation is burned, and Dylan added the smoke travels directly over the veteran housing. Dylan is a toxic burn pit victim from his time serving in Iraq and explained this burning of trash is incredibly harmful to those who are exposed.
According to the VA, Montana has one of the highest veterans per capita rates in the country. Dylan Jefferson added Montana is also home to many Native veterans.
The national veteran suicide prevention 2022 annual report from the VA explained the suicide rate in 2020 among American Indians or Alaska Native veterans was 29.8 per 100,000 individuals.
Through his job at the VA, Jefferson can help veterans get connected with the healthcare providers they need. But more funding is necessary to help bring down the high rate of veteran suicide.
“I took this job because Montana is number one in veteran suicide. It’s actually number one in veteran Native suicide too. There’s tribal outreach for all the reservations in all of Montana and even in Wyoming. It’s a need,” Jefferson said. “When the money runs out, it turns into like a, ‘I can’t get to you,’ but if there’s more money, there can be more of me running around."
Jefferson is also a member of Warrior Wishes Montana, which works to bring the number of veteran suicides down. The nonprofit was founded by another U.S. Army veteran, Miguel Gonzalez, in 2015.
Gonzalez said he has been working closely with Senator Tester to navigate ways to bring down Montana's high rate of veteran suicides.
"I was actually sitting with Senator Tester and we actually got word that a female had committed suicide. That was the 60th one, and that was Nov. 11, so we still had over a month and a half to go,” Gonzalez said. “We need to do something to help slow that down, if not stop it. It’s got to stop.”
According to Gonzalez, the nonprofit works to get the word out that help and resources are available, even if they don’t seem accessible.
“The way we do that is get the word out to those rural areas that there is help available, but they have to take initiative too, and try to look up some of those things. Bills that have been passed recently will help them out tremendously,” Gonzalez said. “I know for a fact we have veterans who live two, three, four hours away to the closest facility. Every now and then you might come across somebody who did make that trip and then find out that their appointment was canceled for whatever reason, just didn’t get the notification. So we need to take this notification to them, not make them work so hard to come to us."
Gonzalez said outreach is the first step, but more funding is also needed to help end the problem.
“I’ve already requested from Tester’s office to give me pamphlets and booklets, and I’ll take them out and deliver them myself to the areas that could utilize those things the most,” Gonzalez said. “We’re trying to combat the 22 a day, and if they don’t know what that is, it’s the veteran's suicide rate. Everywhere in the states and this country, the numbers seem to be going down except in Montana. Check on each other. Make sure, especially around the holidays. It’s the worst time of the year for veterans.”
Jefferson agreed that it is important to check in on other veterans. He said the harsh reality of the high rate of veteran suicide pushed him to share his testimony with other veterans.
“Kevin Vallie, he was a young Navy SEAL, young. He was in his early 20s. He was struggling, even though I had him under my wing and was guiding him, getting his claim going. I didn’t know what he was struggling with, but it was heavy. Sometimes these veterans, the only way out is taking their own life. He made that decision and it was really hard on all of us. One day he was here, and one day he wasn’t. That was the moment I realized, I can’t lose another one of these guys,” Jefferson said. “Mental health. I shied away from it, but when I gave it a chance, I’m still here. And I have a purpose. I have a new purpose."
Jefferson explained that while he is grateful to have the job he does with the VA, he is also grateful for everything Warrior Wishes Montana has done for him and believes the work the nonprofit is doing is a necessity for veterans like himself.
“It was a breath of fresh air. I came from California. I’m from here, but I was down there doing my PTSD treatment. Being in a big city like that, there were just so many people and so much noise. So when I came back here, it was a change of pace. The very first day I was sitting next to Miguel and he just handed me his business card, and from there we just kicked it off,” Jefferson said. “I fully supported everything he was doing because, in that time, I was kind of lost. Didn’t know which direction I was going. But he saw me, and he didn’t judge me, he just said, 'Come on, let’s go,' and I’ve been involved ever since.”
If you would like to learn more about Warrior Wishes Montana, please click here.
“If you’re out there and you know of somebody who may be needing some help or a talk, call them, get ahold of them, and do that," Gonzalez said. "You might save their life.”