A daughter and granddaughter of Vietnam, World War II and World War I veterans, Stephanie Birdwell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, brings understanding and passion to her job as the first director of the Veteran Affairs Department’s Office of Tribal Government Relations.
The VA established the office in 2011 in response to President Barack Obama’s directive that federal agencies establish a tribal consultation policy. “The VA moved forward with a commitment not only to establish a policy on tribal consultation, but also … to set up an office that was focused on strengthening relationships with tribal governments,” a step that some tribes had been advocating for years, says Birdwell, who has worked in Indian country for more than 20 years.
A 2010 MOU between the agency, the Indian Health Service and tribal governments has served as a guide for collaborative initiatives to reach to veterans living in Indian country. “One of the most successful results of the MOU has been the reimbursement agreement between VA and IHS. [Under the agreement,] the VA has reimbursed the IHS and tribal health programs to date about $12.5 million for health care provided to [American Indian Alaska Native] vets,” she says. The reimbursement program supports providing care to American Indian veterans and serves as an access point to additional resources and benefits.
“You may be a tribal health center beginning to have conversations about how can we become a facility that is more vet-centered. What training may be available from the VA for behavioral health providers so we can be more informed about different issues that are affecting our veterans? What kind of resources exist within VA that might be made available in Indian country?”
Courtesy Veteran Affairs Department
Stephanie Birdwell makes remarks at Bethel Veteran Listening Session in May 2011.
The VA also brings other programs to Indian country. “Through the veterans benefits administration the Native American Direct Home Loan program makes mortgages available to veterans living [on tribal lands]. Vets can get loans to purchase a home, make improvements or construct new property,” says Birdwell. The VA is actually the bank for the loan, so “we have a wide latitude and a lot of discretion to be creative and work with the veteran in the event that they need additional help in staying in their home. The VA loans have the lowest default rate of any mortgage product in the country. We are very committed to make sure veterans stay in their homes.”
The office is also working to raise awareness among tribal leaders that veterans have earned the resources and benefits they can get through the VA. The agency keeps track, by county, of how much veterans bring to the community in terms of outside resources so that local governments and tribal leaders can see the direct economic impact of veterans on local economies and understand “how important it is that we really advocate for veterans to be communicating with service officers to know who’s who within the VA and have those conversations about how can we ensure that we are maximizing that resource for our veterans and for our tribal economies,” Birdwell says.
Veterans in the community, says Birdwell, contribute to economic stability in Indian country. “We want to make sure that veterans living in a tribal community know about and have access to the array of services and benefits that they’re entitled to. We believe that veterans who are connected to the services and benefits they’ve earned are better off financially and veterans and their families who are better off financially frequently serve on tribal councils and in tribal leadership roles. That also translates to more economic stability for the community as a whole.”
Birdwell says tribal leaders and individuals who want to find out more about what the VA offers should get in touch, either with the Washington office or with their local VA . The website for the Office of Tribal Government Relations is www.va.gov/tribalgovernment; local contacts are available there. Birdwell’s phone number is (202) 461-4851 and her e-mail is StephanieElaine.Birdwell@va.gov.
The office invites all tribal leaders to participate in a conference call with the VA’s new director, Bob McDonald, on October 23 from 3:30-4:30 p.m. EST. “This is an opportunity for tribal leaders to engage directly with the new secretary and have their voices be heard. The secretary is committed to ensuring that we reach all of our veterans.” The address to register for the call is firstname.lastname@example.org. Registration is not mandatory. The call-in number 1-800-767-1750; the participation code is 64281.
McDonald will also be addressing the NCAI during the plenary session on October 27 in Atlanta. Finally, a tribal consultation is scheduled for November on the proposed realignment of services at the VA Hot Springs, South Dakota, facility.
This is the second in a series of articles introducing federal officials with portfolios in Indian country.