My name is Thomas Bird Bear (Mandan, Hidatsa, & Arikara) and I am a Tribal Government Relations Specialist with the newly-formed VA Office of Tribal Government Relations (OTGR).
Our office was created in January of 2011 to connect with tribal leaders of federally-recognized Indian tribes, pueblos, bands, villages, and nations to better provide services and benefits for a unique population: American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) Veterans.
As the Specialist for the Southwest Region, my area of responsibility covers the tribes in six states (Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and Oklahoma) in carrying out the mission of OTGR.
Recently, from January 30 to February 2, 2012, I accompanied a recognized Veteran’s Service Organization (VSO), the American Legion, on site visits to tribal lands to learn more about health care issues and delivery of services for AI/AN Vets. The three individuals representing the National Headquarters of the American Legion were Ron Conley, Past National Commander (PNC), Verna Jones, Director of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation, and Marty Callaghan, Director of Media Relations. In addition to the VSO representatives, I was accompanied by fellow VA employee Joann Ahlmeyer, Native American Program Coordinator for the Phoenix VA Health Care System, whose extensive knowledge of tribal nations contributed greatly to this important visit.
During the three day journey we drove hundreds of miles from Albuquerque, NM and Phoenix, AZ, respectively, to offices within the exterior boundaries of the Navajo Nation, the Pueblo of Laguna, and the Pueblo of Santo Domingo in the states of Arizona and New Mexico.
The first location we visited was the Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs in Chinle, AZ where PNC Conley explained that the American Legion has an interest in finding ways to help improve the provision of VA services for AI/AN Vets that served in the armed forces.
As we traveled the reservation lands, several themes emerged from interviews with both tribal leaders, tribal Veterans officers and the Veterans themselves: great travel distances to access VA health services (e.g. 355 miles one-way from Chinle to Phoenix, AZ)
A Native Veteran in Window Rock commented that the number one problem is homelessness, lack of emergency housing, and shelters for women Veterans with children – a lack of affordable and available housing was cited at all the reservations.
While VA is committed to implementing the VA Guaranteed Home Loan program, additional outreach is needed to increase awareness of the Native American Direct Home Loan (NADL) program, a VA loan product available to AI/AN Veterans living on Indian trust lands (reservations). In addition, several Native American Vets noted long-wait times for benefit and compensation claims, and perceived instances of discriminatory treatment both while in-service and within the VA system.
While there’s no denying that improvements are needed, it’s equally important to credit success stories and a 2011 partnership developed between VA and the Indian Health Service (IHS) located within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In Chinle we were introduced to the joint efforts of Ron Tso (Navajo), CEO of IHS’ Chinle Service Unit and Rod Sepulveda, Rural Health Coordinator for the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System in Prescott. At the Chinle Comprehensive Health Care Facility we learned about “Integrated Services: Proof of Concept,” which demonstrates how the agencies collaborated to implement the 2010 Memorandum of Understanding to provide VA health care services to Native American Veterans through direct care and tele-health capabilities in an IHS facility.
Without having to travel great distances, VA and IHS have enrolled and treated 706 Veterans, including 400 Veterans accessing the Unit’s mental health services per month.
Tribal Veterans are also satisfied with the VA’s delivery of Home-Based Primary Care at the rural Pueblo of Laguna, according to Marvin Trujillo, Tribal Council member and Veterans Committee Co-Chair of the All-Indian Pueblo Council. And another bright spot in health care was the VA’s continuing recognition of (and reimbursement for) traditional Native American healing practices for treatment of Navajo Nation Veteran’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at VA’s Carl T. Hayden Medical Center in Phoenix, AZ.
The American Legion is supportive of AI/AN Veterans and demonstrated its commitment by scheduling an upcoming service officer accreditation training for Tribal Veteran Service Officers to support the desire for tribal-provided benefit claims and related assistance.
All in all, it was a productive week meeting with Tribal Veterans on tribal lands to address their concerns. As we continue the VA collaboration with Tribal Leaders and Veterans it is apparent that there are successes and substantial challenges that lie ahead for Native American Veterans. And with additional partners like the American Legion, VA and its Office of Tribal Government Relations will continue to find ways to enhance the VA/Tribal Government relationship, increase access to services, effectively respond to American Indian and Alaska Native Veteran needs, and to honor our heroes service to our country.
Thomas Bird Bear is a U.S. Army Veteran and served with HHC 3rd Brigade, 7th Infantry Division (Light) at Fort Ord, CA from 1983-1985. He currently works as a Tribal Government Relations Specialist with VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations.