FORT HARRISON — In May 1922, during the aftermath of World War I, a brick building at Fort Harrison came under the auspices of the new federal Veterans Bureau and became U.S. Veterans’ Hospital No. 72. That legacy was honored Friday, as the Montana VA Healthcare System celebrated 100 years of serving veterans at the site.
“It’s just such a wonderful commemoration, and such a testament to the veterans we’ve been honored and privileged to serve, as well as our employees over the years,” said Dr. Judy Hayman, executive director of the Montana VA.
Despite windy weather and snow showers, the VA estimates almost 200 people were in attendance for the 100th-anniversary ceremony. The event began with the presentation of colors, followed by the Capital High School choir singing the national anthem.
Edwin “Sooney” Little Plume, a Blackfeet cultural advisor, delivered a blessing.
“This is memorable – 100 years,” he said. “Maybe in 100 years, they’ll be reading about us.”
VA leaders and all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation were on hand, and they praised the dedication of Montana VA employees.
“This really is a time to celebrate what the VA has done in the state of Montana and what it needs to do moving forward – taking care of our veterans, the people who serve this country,” said Sen. Jon Tester. “It’s really important, whether you’re talking health care or housing or education or whatever it might be, when the folks sign the dotted line in an all-volunteer military, we need to step up to the plate and live up to the promises. That’s what Fort Harrison is all about.”
“I appreciate the perseverance, the faithfulness of this institution to our veterans, and here’s to another 100 years,” said Sen. Steve Daines. “As we will continue to have conflicts around the world, I’m so proud of the men and women who wear the uniform. We have the best fighting force in the world – there’s not even a close second place.”
Rep. Matt Rosendale pointed to how Fort Harrison was transformed from an Army post to a hospital to serve the growing need for veteran health care.
“Does that sound like Montana?” he asked. “They accommodated the needs for the community, and that’s what we always do.”
Hayman presented a commemorative “challenge coin” marking the occasion to 101-year-old Vern Olson, a World War II veteran who lives in Ennis.
The event also included a health fair, highlighting VA and other programs serving veterans’ needs. After the ceremony, local first responders circled the VA campus in an “emergency services parade.”
“It was an amazing event,” Hayman said. “The support from the community, and of course our veterans and our staff – it’s just heartwarming.”
The Fort Harrison facility has made it through a tuberculosis outbreak in 1923 and the 1935 earthquake that damaged many buildings around Helena. It has twice outgrown its space and moved into a new hospital building.
“We find ways to innovate and adapt, and I think that’s going to be what we will continue to do in the future,” said Hayman. “We’ve learned over the years that there’s always a way to accomplish what your goal is, and we will just look forward to continue to find new and better ways to serve our veterans.”
While the Montana VA celebrated 100 years – based on the first time the campus was primarily a hospital rather than an active military base – the history of serving veterans at this location actually goes back even farther. The original hospital building was formerly the Army post hospital, dating back to the 1890s.