Vietnam Veterans of America
Challenges Facing American
American Indians have served the United States in every war for the past two hundred years. More importantly, American Indians are the most decorated of all minorities per capita in every war that America has fought. In 2012 there were more than 22,000 American Indian and Alaska Natives on active duty. The 2010 census identified more than 150,000 American Indian and Alaska Native veterans. Twenty-seven American Indians have received the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor.
Providing services to American Indian veterans can be a complex entanglement of government entities, including the Office of Tribal Government Relations (OTGR), the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Indian Health Service (IHS), and tribal governments. Historically, these agencies have not worked together to help American Indian veterans.
There are 567 federally recognized Sovereign Tribal Nations in the United States. Each speaks its own language and has its own culture. In addition, there are many other state-recognized Tribal Nations, not to mention unrecognized Tribal Nations. American Indian tribal reservations are generally in very remote areas far from VA hospitals and Regional Offices. Complicating matters, these veterans—as well as Tribal Nations—mistrust the U.S. Government and its agencies, and prefer to care for their own.
Veterans Service Organizations have a poor record helping American Indian veterans or explaining to them the VA benefits to which they are entitled. In some areas VSOs have offices on or near reservations, but rarely do they interact with the tribal councils or tribal chairs.
In 1998 the VA signed an agreement with the Oneida Nation in New York to bring veterans badly needed medical services. Although this was a start, 566 other Tribal Nations across the U.S. remain in need of critical VA medical services.
The VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations could connect the dots, government to government. The OTGR has a director and a program analyst in Washington, D.C., but only four regional specialists to serve all 567 federally recognized Tribal Nations. OTGR serves four regions. One specialist serves fourteen states; another serves ten states; the third serves four states; and the fourth, six. The remaining sixteen states—Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia—do not receive services from OTGR for their American Indian veterans. In short, only six people in the VA provide outreach and coordinate services for some 150,000 American Indian veterans.
Despite the Veterans Choice program, many veterans on reservations have no access to health care. Some health care services are located more than a hundred miles from the reservations. In addition, many of these rural veterans do not have Internet access—a problem that will worsen as the VA moves toward becoming a paperless agency. Many Indian veterans are unaware of the benefits available to them, including home loans, higher education benefits, employment assistance, vocational rehabilitation, and extended home care for the disabled.
The program to reimburse the Indian Health Service is inadequate and insufficient to provide badly needed medical and mental health care for Indian veterans. Its inefficiency lies with the IHS having little knowledge of the medical needs of veterans. That includes specialized care for PTSD, Agent Orange-caused diseases, traumatic brain injuries, and the many types of diabetes.
Tribal governments, recognizing the many issues confronting their veterans, have established their own Veterans Service Offices. A new law approved by the VA on February 21, 2017, grants tribal veteran service officers the power to develop claims and submit them to the VA. The law also requires that tribal veteran service officers be approved by the states to submit claims to the VA, as is the case with all county veterans service officers across the United States.
Many questions remain. Better communication needs to be established with the tribal chairs and Tribal Veterans Services Offices. In addition, statistics need to be compiled on the number of American Indian veterans in each region; the number who have committed suicide or are homeless; the number who have visited IHS hospitals as opposed to VA hospitals in each region; and the types of medical treatments they received at IHS hospitals as opposed to VA hospitals. Finally, special consideration must be given to the cultural healing methods of each tribal nation, such as sweat lodges, prayers, and healing ceremonies.
All Vet Centers in states with high American Indian populations should provide cultural awareness and sensitivity classes.
Large numbers of American Indian veterans are homeless on and off reservations. Many attempt suicide. These veterans have few resources. But resource issues can be ameliorated through the OTGR working with cooperation from the VA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, and all 567 Tribal Governments simply working together.
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