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Montana's competitive U.S. Senate race is focused on veterans' issues

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Montana has a big U.S. Senate race this year. A former Navy Seal is challenging the chair of the Senate's Veterans Affairs Committee. Both are campaigning on how they would help veterans. Here's Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar. And a warning, this contains mentions of suicide.

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JON TESTER: Anyway, thank you all for being here. I appreciate it a bunch.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester recently rallied a specific group of supporters in Kalispell in Northwest Montana.

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TESTER: I take my instructions from veterans.

RAGAR: Two dozen veterans met with Tester to launch Veterans for Tester in support of the incumbent's reelection campaign for a fourth term. Tester has long focused on veterans issues, although he didn't serve in the military. He worked his way up to chair the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

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KIMMIE: Veterans across Montana...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...Stand with Jon.

RAGAR: But Tester's Republican challenger, Tim Sheehy, is a former Navy Seal. His wife Carmen is a Marine Corps veteran. Being a combat veteran is core to his identity.

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TIM SHEEHY: I've had a lot of close calls. Doesn't make me better than anybody else, but it does mean I know what it takes to fight for this country.

RAGAR: Regardless of Tester's and Sheehy's personal ties, focusing on veterans issues is vital for Montana candidates as the state includes one of the largest veteran populations per capita in the country. Sheehy says Tester's had three terms to address veterans' issues but hasn't done enough. He points to the more than 35,000 veterans experiencing homelessness, challenges accessing care at the VA and mental health crises. Here's Sheehy speaking at the recent state GOP convention.

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SHEEHY: Jon Tester runs on veterans. He panders to the veterans every single day. You know what? I'm so [expletive] sick of hearing politicians talk about taking care of veterans...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Woo. Yeah.

SHEEHY: ...When we have the highest veteran suicide rate ever. Ever.

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RAGAR: That claim is not accurate, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The number of veterans who died by suicide peaked in 2018, fell in 2020 and began to rise again in 2021. Still, the veteran suicide rate is a top concern, says Shannon Razsadin, co-founder of the non-profit Military Family Advisory Network. The organization found in a survey last year that veterans struggle to access mental healthcare with the high cost of housing and food insecurity. However, Razsadin noted...

SHANNON RAZSADIN: We're seeing that people are turning to VA healthcare more and more and that their experiences with the healthcare they are receiving has improved.

RAGAR: Tester often highlights his work to improve healthcare access for vets. Tester's headlining policy is the Pact Act, which expanded health benefits for millions of toxin-exposed veterans. But he says he knows some veterans are still struggling.

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TESTER: We've still got more work to do within the VA. But the truth is, is that we're going to continue to work to make sure it meets the needs of the veterans out there that serve this country.

RAGAR: While Tester may be plagued by persistent challenges at the VA, Sheehy has had to face questions about his own record. The Washington Post first reported that Sheehy was cited in 2015 for accidentally discharging a gun in Glacier National Park that lodged a bullet in his forearm. He's previously said he was shot in active combat but says he lied to a park ranger about a different injury to protect his platoon mates. Sheehy has declined to release medical records that could confirm when he was injured. In an interview with Montana Public Radio, Sheehy brushed off any outstanding questions.

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SHEEHY: So it's pretty ridiculous that after serving my country and being wounded overseas, I'm being forced to present medical records.

RAGAR: Montana veterans now must decide whether to continue to trust Tester to represent their interests in Congress or trust Sheehy to do a better job.

For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Shaylee Ragar
Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.