MISSOULA — Capt. Andrew Person’s mother signed his enlistment papers when he was 17 years old and still a student at Helena High School.
His mother was there again on Wednesday when Person – now a University of Montana Law School student – was recognized by a distinguished panel of dignitaries for his service to veterans across Montana.
Calling him a champion of the Montana National Guard and its soldiers and airmen in uniform, state Adjutant General Matthew Quinn awarded Person the Distinguished Patriot’s Medal.
The award recognizes Person’s five years of service as U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’ military liaison, where he pushed to improve post-war conditions for Montana’s citizen soldiers.
“He has those good Montana values that make such a difference for the men and women in uniform,” Quinn said. “He’s been a true friend of the Montana National Guard.”
After completing tours in both the Iraq and Afghan wars with the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, Person went to work for Baucus, serving as his military liaison.
Person pushed for creation of the Yellow Ribbon Program – an idea that began in Montana before spreading nationally. He also urged Baucus to extend tax benefits to employers who hire veterans returning home from war.
“We introduced legislation to apply that,” Baucus said Wednesday. “It’s so good, President (Barack) Obama has copied it. He put it in his State of the Union address. That was Andrew’s idea.”
Person received the Distinguished Patriot’s Medal in a ceremony held at the Law School. Attendees included UM President Royce Engstrom and Law School Dean Irma Russell, among others.
Brig. Gen. Quinn, commander of the Montana National Guard, did the honors, while Brig. Gen. Bradley Livingston, commander of the Montana Air National Guard, and Baucus spoke on Person’s behalf.
“Today, we have one of the finest Yellow Ribbon programs in the United States,” Livingston said before turning to Person. “Sometimes you don’t know the impact you have. Sometimes it’s the senator who gets the credit, but often it’s the staff members who do the hard work.”
To understand the impacts of the Yellow Ribbon Program, one must understand the recent history of the Montana National Guard. State soldiers began deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, and continue to serve there today.
But early in the war effort, their transition home was less than satisfactory. Person, who left the service in 2006 and started with Baucus in 2007, saw an opportunity to improve the situation.
The Yellow Ribbon Program now touches soldiers and airmen before they deploy with mental health screenings. It assists families during the deployment, and it reaches out to service members upon their return from war with additional mental health screenings, educational benefits, tax help and social workshops, among other things.
The idea was born in Montana, but really, those present Wednesday, gave much of the credit to Person.
“Men and women of the National Guard leave their communities, leave their families, and have to reintegrate when they come back from war,” Quinn said. “Andrew was a huge advocate for the National Guard, making sure the programs were there, the funding was there, to support our men and women as they reintegrate back into their communities and families.”
While Person is stepping down from his position as Baucus’ military liaison to pursue his law degree, Quinn said the Yellow Ribbon Program will continue to evolve.
“As the deployments change, as the tour lengths change, as families change, the Yellow Ribbon Program has to change as well,” Quinn said. “At the end of the day, it has to serve the soldiers and airmen that leave Montana.”
Person’s arrival as Baucus’ military liaison was built on timing, and his background made him the right candidate for the job. He deployed to Iraq with the 173rd in a parachute assault in 2003. Shortly after, he moved into Afghanistan.
Person left the service in 2006 and planned on moving to Washington, D.C., to start graduate school. He reached out to Baucus and offered to help where help was needed. At the time, Baucus was looking for a new military liaison.
“Everybody in the country feels there’s a priority in ensuring veterans have everything they need when they come home,” Person said. “Everyone wants to help. The hard part is figuring out exactly what needs to be done. Baucus has the desire and the ability to make things happen in Congress. When you combine that, it presents an incredible opportunity.”
Person plans to intern with the Boone Karlberg law firm in Missoula this summer.
“I’d like to learn the law and stay involved in politics to some extent,” he said.