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U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary encourages Wyoming veterans to take advantage of expanded benefits

An older man in a wheelchair and blue beanie hat speaks to a white-haired man wearing glasses and a mask. The white-haired man is crouched down and listening intently as the older man talks.
Elaine Buehler
Veterans Affairs
VA Secretary Denis McDonough speaks with Air Force Veteran Gary McComas during a visit to the Sheridan VA Medical Center on February 29th, 2024. McComas expressed enthusiasm at the opportunity and was especially excited when he received a Secretary of Veterans Affairs challenge coin from McDonough, commenting afterward "this is something I’ll cherish forever." McDonough had spent the morning meeting with veterans and staff of the medical center as part of a multi-day tour of VA facilities in Wyoming.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough wants Wyoming veterans to know that the agency is there for them. While on a trip around the state at the end of February, McDonough met with veterans, families and staff at the VA Medical Center in Sheridan to connect about how to better support those who have served.

After a morning of meetings, McDonough held a press conference and emphasized that all Wyoming veterans should have access to the VA benefits that they’ve earned. He said the agency estimates that there are about 48,000 veterans in the state, but that only half of that population is enrolled to receive care through the VA.

“Maybe some veterans don't come to us because they think that one of their battle buddies needs access to the VA more than they do. I'm here to say that there is no limitation on access to VA benefits. Every veteran has earned access to VA,” he said.

McDonough cited recent studies which have found that VA health care is consistently as good as, or better than, non-VA-provided health care.

“There is a direct correlation to lower rates of suicidality among veterans who get compensation benefits from the Veterans Benefits Administration. That's another reason we want to make sure that we have a relationship with veterans,” he said.

When asked how the VA is helping veterans transition into civilian life, McDonough pointed to two main pillars of support offered by the agency. One is the Transition Assistance Program, which provides information, resources, and tools to help prepare service members before they make the shift. The other is a program called Solid Start, where the agency checks in with veterans three times during their first year of transition to support them in that process.

The secretary then turned to President Biden’s PACT Act, which expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances. According to McDonough, the VA has had 3,524 PACT claims filed in Wyoming alone and 1.4 million claims filed nationally.

He said that 75 percent of national PACT act claims have been awarded and that the program has currently provided more than $4 billion in compensation benefits payments to veterans since it started in 2022.

As of March 5th, the VA is expanding who can access PACT ACT benefits. Those who served in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other combat zone after 9/11, those who were deployed in support of the Global War on Terror, and those who were exposed to toxins or other hazards during military service at home or abroad, can now enroll directly in VA health care.

When it comes to providing care for Native veterans, McDonough said the agency is trying to increase access through three main avenues. One is eliminating co-pays for care at the VA.

“As of about a year ago, Native veterans do not need to pay a copay when they come to get their care at VA. And those veterans who paid a copay between January 2022 and April 2023, we can reimburse you for those,” he said.

The agency is also trying to improve coordination with the Indian Health Service (IHS) and is working to make it easier for tribes to establish their own Tribal Veterans Service Officers, who provide community outreach to advocate for Native vets.

Prior to his morning at the Sheridan VA Medical Center, McDonough made a stop at the Sheridan Police Department to pay his respects for U.S. Army Veteran Police Sergeant Nevada Krinkee. Krinkee was killed in the line of duty in Sheridan in the middle of February.

“I talked with the chief of police and he said what is obviously true, which is that Nevada Krinkee had service in his blood, in his bones,” he said.

On his visit, McDonough went to the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center, connected with partners at the St. John’s Hospital in Jackson and stopped by outpatient clinics in Riverton and Cody. The secretary also visited the National Museum of Military Vehicles outside of Dubois.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.

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