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Veterans Administration pledges more help for Native Alaskan vets

Valdez Native Tribe
Valdez Native Tribe Chief William Smith talks about his experience serving in the military and returning to his Eyak community in a screenshot from the video "Healing Journeys: Bill's Story." The Veterans Administration last month chose Smith to serve on its VA Tribal Advisory Committee, which VA Secretary Denis McDonough says will help help improve delivery of benefits to Alaska Native vets.

Nation must repair ‘broken promise’ to deliver benefits for indigenous vets, VA secretary tells AFN conferees

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough says the VA is redoubling its efforts, and funding, to help Alaska Native veterans get the benefits they deserve. In an online talk Monday during this week’s Alaska Federation of Natives conference, McDonough said that includes more outreach to vets in villages and other rural areas.

More Alaska Natives and American Indians have served in the military than any other ethnic group, proportionate to their population. And they’ve served with distinction. But VA Denis Secretary McDonough says the nation hasn’t always shown them the gratitude they’re due.

YouTube screenshot
VA Secretary Denis McDonough testifies before Congress last week. He spoke Monday in an online address during the Alaska Federation of Natives annual conference.

“As with all veterans, our nation made a promise to Alaska Native vets when they signed up to serve our country,” he said, “A promise that if they served us, we’d serve them – that if they’d fight for us, we’d fight for them. But for too long, our nation broke that promise.”

McDonough said the military’s 141,000 indigenous service members include some 24,000 Alaska Natives. And he says when they leave the service they, like all vets, should get help navigating the bureaucracy to get the benefits the VA offers.

“Those Alaska Native veterans fought for freedoms and rights overseas that they did not fully enjoy at home,” he said. “That’s a tragedy, and while we cannot un-do that dark history, we can make sure it doesn’t repeat itself.”

To that end, McDonough outlined new and ongoing efforts the VA is making to help Alaska Native vets get the help they deserve, even if they live outside the urban areas where the agency has offices and personnel. Those efforts include standing-up a VA Tribal Advisory Committee and appointing Chief William Smith of the Valdez Native Tribe as a member.

We’re thrilled to have him on board,” the VA secretary said.

McDonough said the VA also has set up a new Veterans Health Services office to help coordinate delivery of health care to tribal veterans. He said the agency’s Reimbursement Agreement Program allows both Native and non-Native vets to access care though the Anchorage-based Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

“We’ve reimbursed more than 82-million dollars through this program since its inception in 2012, which more importantly means that more than 5,000 veterans have received the care they needed.”

For those vets who’ve come home and gone back to the village, McDonough says the VA offers transportation grants to help those vets travel to medical facilities where they can get the health care they need. And he says the VA’s Alaska Tribal Representative Program helps train people in villages and other rural communities to advise their veteran neighbors on how they can access the benefits that they’ve earned.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.