BATON ROUGE, La. – A retired U.S. Army veteran is leading an effort to grow a national organization to help Native veterans and their families get the benefits they earned defending the United States in its many wars.
Don Loudner, Sioux, who served 30 years in the military from 1950 to 1980, is the National Commander of the National American Indian Veterans. The five-year-old organization is acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs as the leasing voice for American Indian veterans, but Congress has not formally recognized it with a national charter.
“We’re trying to expand and get support and get a national charter through Congress. Most important is we’re trying to excite American Indian veterans to come forward with us and unite with us in one voice to help our American Indian brothers and sisters who served as warriors in every conflict and war that the U.S. ever had since the coming of the white man, so we can have a strong voice in Congress and get those benefits.”
Loudner said many American Indian veterans are not getting the help they need to apply for and obtain their rightful benefits, or they give up trying after hitting roadblocks in the system.
NAIV formed in 2004 with an initial 600 members. Its mission is to advocate and support American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and American Samoan veterans and their families in improving their quality of life, and that means helping them get the earned benefits that may have been denied or diminished and trying to influence the passage of legislation to secure or broaden benefits.
As part of fulfilling its mission, NAIV aims to train service officers to help veterans file claims with the Veterans Administration and intercede when necessary to make sure eligible veterans are not denied benefits; to maintain a Web site, publish and distribute a newsletter and serve as a communication center to keep members updated on VA programs and issues as they occur; to operate a national headquarters to create and maintain membership records, and the organization’s financial records; and to charter local lodges for members and their families to gather for meetings to discuss issues and as spaces for social activities; and to charter auxiliaries for spouses and other family members.
NAIV has accomplished several of those goals. In July 2004, NAIV incorporated as a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Baton Rouge, La. The organization publishes a quarterly newsletter called “The Warrior,” and it has a Web site at www.naivonline.org.
Now, Loudner is focusing on gaining financial support from wealthy casino tribes to host conferences to draw more members and build a body of support that will convince Congress to grant the organization a federal charter.
“We need a national charter because a lot of our Indian combat veterans are being laid to rest without military honors because we couldn’t get anyone to come in and perform them as they do with the other veterans’ organizations. Having a national charter also would authorize us to acquire military equipment such as honor guard rifles and blank ammunition to perform 21 gun salutes and military clothing worn during those honoring ceremonies. And without the national charter we’re not even recognized in Congress so that we can testify about American Indian veterans’ concerns and needs.”
Veterans are not being asked to break their ties with any other veterans’ organizations, Loudner said.
“I encourage our veterans to continue to belong to all the other veteran organizations, but we also want them to join ours so that Congress will recognize us as a growing organization. I was told that every member we have represents 50 votes.”
So far, lobbying efforts for a national charter have resulted in a congressional ping pong game.
A bill introduced by former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in 2004 passed unanimously, then went to the House and died. The next year, NAIV focused its lobbying efforts on the House where it passed unanimously and then went to the Senate where no action was taken.
Last year, NAIV was told it would be the first to get a charter if Congress were to consider any more charters for veterans’ organizations, Loudner said
“And that upset me very much and I said, ‘So, you’re still discriminating against American Indians.’”
The next effort will be directed at President Obama. Loudner said he spoke briefly with Obama during his campaign stop in South Dakota.
“I gave him one of my cards and one of my NAIV pins and said, ‘We would like to meet with you when you become the first minority president, the first minority commander in chief. We want you to support us in getting our national charter,’ and he said ‘I understand.’ We are in the process of writing him a letter to ask him for that meeting.”
Loudner is also seeking support from tribes in the form of hosting NAIV conferences. The organization has held four conferences so far, hosted by the Navajo Nation and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. He said more than 2,000 veterans attended the Morongo conference.
But some of the veterans didn’t have enough money for a motel room and slept in their cars.
“That hurt me. We’ve got some very successful casino tribes all over the country. If they would invite us, we could come out and present to them what we have done and what we could be doing. We’ve got the potential, if we could get the funds, to travel and establish veterans’ service officers on each Indian reservation to work on getting the benefits not only for the veterans, but for the surviving spouses and their families.”
In addition to his efforts on behalf of NAIV, Loudner is also co-chairman of the National American Indian Veterans Memorial project at the Riverside National Cemetery in California.
“We’re looking for about $3 million to get it completed.”