He enlisted in the Marines like his three uncles did after graduating from high school in hopes of taking advantage of the military’s educational benefits. Mike, who did not want to give his last name, trained in Saudi Arabia for 18 months before fighting in the Gulf War in Kuwait.
“It was quite awful,” said Mike, 46, who was an artillery cannoneer. “We killed a whole bunch of people,” he said of his squat’s mission to secure Kuwait. “For a while there I couldn’t eat barbecue because the smell reminded me of what I saw over there, like human flesh.”
He requested a discharge after he found out his wife had divorced and left him to care for his two children. He worked at a nearby prison and as a heavy equipment operator after returning from the war. But when he lost his appetite, and the nightmares and then sleepless began, he knew he needed help.
“I was putting it off,” said the veteran living on the Laguna Reservation 45 miles west of Albuquerque. “I was embarrassed about it. I thought I wasn’t man enough to take what I distributed out in the war.”
Mike is one of thousands of Native American veterans across the nation who has earned benefits after military service, but either put off obtaining them or gave up after repeated efforts. Other veterans, especially those in rural areas, don’t know where to apply for services, or don’t have transportation or access to where services are administered.
Organizers of a free, inaugural conference September 22-24 at the Isleta Resort & Casino hope to help. The Southwest Native American Veterans Association Regional Conference will feature representatives from federal, state and local veterans services offices to inform and help vets and their families fill out paperwork for behavioral health, education, pensions, geriatric and extended care, and women’s health care issues. Representatives will also talk about mortgage financing for vets, as well business loans. Free health screenings will be available.
The conference, sponsored by the newly created New Mexico-based Southwest Native American Veterans Association (SWNAVA), will also include U.S. Rep. Steve Pierce (R-NM), and representatives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and regional health care organizations.
“Our mission is to not only increase access to benefits but increase cultural awareness,” said Ramus Suina (Cochiti Pueblo), SWNAVA executive director.
More than 150,000 American Indian and Alaska Native veterans live in the country, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. About 14,000 are in New Mexico.
Marvin Trujillo Jr., former Laguna Pueblo Tribal Veteran Service Officer and SWNAVA board member, said some New Mexico tribes have provided some services after establishing a veterans office when the state Department of Veterans Services offered training to tribal members in 2007.
Trujillo, a Navy and commissioned Marine veteran who also serves on the U.S. Veterans Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans, said tribal service officers have been helpful to get some Native vets through the long, multistep process to follow up and obtain benefits.
Tom Dailey, a former six-time governor in Laguna and a World War II vet, signed up for benefits with the help of children and Trujillo, and has a home visiting nurse now. He’s also received a ramp and a remodeled disabled accessible bathroom.
“It’s helpful,” says Dailey, who is of good health and will turn 96 in September.
All veterans are also looking forward to changes within the overall system after President Barack Obama earlier this month signed a $16.3 billion legislation to overhaul the VA following reports of delays in health care resulting in death. The bill allows the VA to hire more doctors and nurses.
Stephanie Birdwell, the VA’s Office of Tribal Relations director, said in the past 18 months the VA has reimbursed Indian Health Service $10 million for direct care to Native vets.
Mike, who recently noticed trouble with his hearing and hopes that firing ammunition didn’t affect his ears, said it took about a year before the VA diagnosed and began treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“It’s a long process,” he said. “Everywhere I go, I find that they just want to push you in the corner. And that’s why some veterans don’t want to do anything with the VA, especially the VA in Albuquerque because they are so backlogged. There are so many veterans now in the hospital and they just don’t have the accommodations and the staff. They run you through the system, give you quick advice and send you on your way. It’s frustrating.
“You’ve got to be patient,” he said.