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A proposed helping hand for Native veterans

SAMSON, Ala. – He’s got some land. He’s got a plan. And, perhaps most important, he’s got the will to help ailing Native veterans cope with and recover from the travesties of war they’ve seen during military service to the nation.

Bill Silaghi, a member of Echota Cherokee Tribe of Florida, owns a stretch of nearly seven miles in Geneva County, Ala., which he proudly calls the Eagle’s Nest. He and his wife, Teresa, have incorporated a nonprofit organization that allows them to host an annual Native American intertribal gathering and pow wow at the site each fall. The lands also feature a primitive campground.

Now, they want to do more.

Silaghi recently sent a proposal to various U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials in an attempt to raise awareness of his desire to hold an annual gathering focused on treating the mental health needs of returning Native combat veterans in his region. He’d like to host quarterly meetings where Native healers and others could interact directly with returning troops. There would likely be talking circles, sweats and other cultural activities.

“It would give the vets a traditional way to help cleanse themselves of some of the negative images of war,” Silaghi said in a late-December interview. “It would allow the vets to face down their shadow demons, as some people call them, so they can no longer haunt them. … to me, this is big medicine.”

He said he’s already getting a lot of support from the Native population in his area, and added that a lot of veterans in the region have responded positively to the idea. He also anticipates that there will be many Native veterans coming back from service in current military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has yet to hear back from VA officials regarding the proposal.

Still, Silaghi is hopeful. He noted that American Indians have a long and proud tradition of service within the armed forces of the United States, and tend to serve in the military in numbers that far exceed their representation in the population of the nation overall.

He’s also already created a monument on his lands to honor Native recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and he has plans to establish a Native veteran museum and Native veteran memorial honoring those who were killed in action or died of wounds in military combat from World War I to the present.

His ultimate goal is to establish the mental health program at Eagle’s Nest to serve Native veterans of the Southeast, which would have similar aims as Camp Chaparral on the Yakama reservation in Washington state. That camp has been around since 1992, and was formed as a result of tribal interests in teaching and sensitizing VA practitioners and others who work with American Indian veterans on Native-focused methodologies of healing.

Silaghi wrote in his proposal to VA officials that he believes there to be only three designated federal locations in the country where American Indian veterans can receive traditional, cultural-focused help for military-related mental health issues. Those locations include Camp Chaparral and sites in Arizona and Minnesota. All of the programs he’s researched are west of the Mississippi River.

“The establishment of a program similar to Camp Chaparral at the Eagle’s Nest of Alabama’s allotted lands would provide Native American veterans with a location in the Southeast United States where they could receive treatment or assistance in traditional ways of their ancestry,” Silaghi wrote in a message attached to his recent proposal to the VA.

He’s disheartened that there aren’t already more VA programs focused on the issue.

“I’d like to see plenty more of these programs in states with large amounts of Natives,” Silaghi said. “Why should only the Western vets have access to something that could be beneficial?”

A.J. Allen, a coordinator of Native programs at Camp Chaparral, said that dozens of Native veterans have been helped since the establishment of the program in her state.

“It helps our staff become more sensitive to many cultural issues,” Allen said. “And the Native vets we’ve worked with have really seemed to respond well to the program.”

Allen added that such VA program networks focused on Native veterans have proven very useful. The next session of Camp Chaparral is scheduled to take place in August.

Silaghi’s proposal comes at a time when some Native veterans are increasingly decrying what they view as lacking mental health services and care from the VA after they exit the military.

Bobby O’Daniel, a member of the Navajo Nation, recently spoke at a press conference in Washington regarding difficult situations he’s faced in dealing with the VA. He’s currently working to raise attention of a lawsuit, filed by the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Veterans of Modern Warfare, which seeks 90-day decisions on initial claims for disability benefits, and a 180-day period to resolve appeals.

O’Daniel, a veteran of the Gulf War, said that 13 years after filing his first disability claim, he is still waiting to get full disability benefits from the VA, and he feels the department hasn’t offered enough financial assistance to help him get proper treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Silaghi said that such stories are reason for quick action. He’s shooting to get his first program, with support from the VA or not, tentatively called “A Warriors Homecoming,” off the ground in late October.

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