Photo courtesy of

When I was asked to serve this great country, I found a life of military service was not my calling. I made that choice at the age of seventeen, and I stand by it today. I am and have never been one to follow direction, instruction and least of all, orders; Much to the chagrin of my Mother. Some will say those qualities are the defining characteristics of an American. While I meet the American standard, I chose to walk away from the military life that seemed to lie ahead. With those thoughts heavy on my mind as I type, I'm honored that our Congressional Representative Ryan Zinke asked me to pass this note on to you on the the eve of Veterans Day 2015.

Respect Their Sacrifice and Honor our Promises: By Rep. Ryan Zinke

Montana has a strong military tradition unparalleled by almost any other state in the nation. Nearly 1-in-10 of us hears the call to serve in the armed forces, and in the sovereign nations the warrior spirit is even stronger.

Last month, I visited Wolf Point and spent time with the family of Michael Bell, a young man from the Fort Peck Tribes who was also a Navy SEAL. Surrounded by friends, family and officials from tribes as far away as North Dakota, I helped honor Michael with a memorial service and Naval ceremony. I knew Michael as his Commander. I led him through BUDS training, which is what all young men must go through before becoming a SEAL. Michael was tough, dedicated and tenacious with a love of service that made me proud as a SEAL and as a Montanan. Sadly, Michael was murdered while at home between deployments.

The time I spent with his family honoring his sacrifice and service will always be with me.  It is a clear reminder though that we can all do more to respect the sacrifices of those who have served and honor the promises that we have made to our troops.

The Veterans Administration (VA) is failing our veterans, and it has been for a long time. It’s been two years since we first learned of the corruption and criminal negligence at all levels of the VA. Stories of veterans put on long wait lists, rationed care, and inadequate service sounded like Soviet-era atrocities, not something that could happen here at home.

It took more than two years after the news reports for the first criminal charges to finally come. Yet today there are 50 percent more veterans on wait lists than when the scandal first broke, and a recent report found one-third of veterans waiting for health care at the VA have already passed away. To make it worse, out of the 280,000 individuals identified as having a part in the manufactured long wait times, only three were fired. This is unacceptable.

The Choice Act was supposed to fix these systematic failures, but this administration's implementation of it has failed. They have raided Choice funding and created a complicated system that has only spawned confusion and ineptitude. We need to strengthen policies that allow veterans to access care outside the VA. A promise was made that is not being delivered.

In order to fix the corrupt system that protects bad actors, I cosponsored and helped pass the VA Accountability Act, which will codify the right of the VA to demote or fire employees for poor job performance or misconduct. This law will finally correct some of the gross corruption at the VA.

Here in Montana we have projects we must advance. I petitioned VA Secretary McDonald to expand the medical center at Fort Harrison and build a new veterans home in Butte. I’ve also called for improved mental health services to help the 15,000 Montana veterans living with PTSD. Emotional wounds are just as critical as physical wounds and must be addressed. When we are losing 22 veterans a day to suicide, we all need to start working together on the problem.

We also need to improve healthcare for women veterans, which is why I was an early sponsor of the Women Veterans Access to Quality Care Act. Women are serving in the military at historic rates. I serve in the House alongside many decorated female veterans who have led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A 2014 report by Disabled Veterans of America found women’s healthcare within the VA system to be grossly inadequate. Besides having a systematic culture that is unwelcoming to women, more than 30 percent of VA health centers do not have a gynecologist, and more than 15 percent still don’t have a designated women’s health provider.

What’s more, the study finds the transition from soldier to civilian is even tougher for women. Joblessness for female veterans is nearly 10 percent, and PTSD rates shadow the rates of men. Whether you're a man or a woman, you should get the same degree of healthcare from our VA, and it should be the absolute best quality of care the United States is capable of providing.

Over my 23-year career, I was lucky. My generation mostly trained for war. The men and women of today live it. America has been at war longer now than at any point in our history. Our troops gave us everything they have, leaving nothing on the battlefield. We owe it to them to give them our best. God bless America, and God bless the men and women who defend her.

Ryan Zinke is Montana’s Representative in the U.S. House and serves on the Armed Services Committee. Ryan is a former State Senator and 23-year veteran of the U.S. Navy SEALs.