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New Organization Advocates for Underserved Native Veterans

When one Oklahoma Choctaw veteran found himself in need of comprehensive medical care in 2002, he encountered a problem common to many American Indian veterans. Thomas Berry’s home, in Durant, Oklahoma was 45 miles away from the nearest VA health care facility. Unable to make the 90 mile round trip as often as needed, he was able to obtain urgent care at the Indian Health Service (IHS) Durant clinic, while he continued seeking treatment for his long term health issues at the VA facility.

Not all Indian vets are as lucky as Berry, however. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), approximately 20 percent of the nation’s 23.5 million veterans are people of color, yet American Indians have historically underutilized VA services. Native veterans face a variety of unique health care challenges, ranging from chronic disease and high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to difficulties in accessing medical treatment.

These types of problems among native vets are so endemic that the VA addressed them in its Department of Veterans Affairs Accomplishments Summary report in July 2010. They pledged greater support for the more than 383,000 American Indian and Alaska Native veterans living today through new outreach initiatives. Through their newly established Office of Tribal Government Relations, they promise to increase outreach efforts to tribal governments and encourage Native vets to enroll in VA services. The administration also states that they are “updating and expanding VA working agreements with IHS to better coordinate and deliver care to Native American veterans.”

Barry, however, was one step ahead of the VA. After talking with a number of Native vets who all shared the same problems, he began to visualize an organization that would address the various problems Native vets encounter in their dealings with the VA and with tribal programs. He became intent on trying to bridge the gap between them which so many Native vets had fallen through over the years.

As a result, in 2002, the National Native American Veterans Association (NNAVA) was born.

Berry, an Air Force and Navy veteran, initially served as the group’s chairman. His leadership focused on education and raising awareness among Native vets and tribes about the rights and benefits that all veterans are entitled to; benefits that he believes veterans have “bought and paid for” through their service. He asserts that by accessing VA benefits, Native vets have more opportunities for education and job training, and for improving their quality of life.

Several months later, Berry met Cherokee Air Force Reserve and Army veteran Stephanie McCalister, who shared similar ideas and concerns. Together, they created the organization’s website, which helped the group to grow and expand.

Unfortunately, Berry’s health concerns worsened, and although he is still involved with the group today, James D. “Standing Horse” Cates, MSgt/USAF retired, took over the NNAVA chairmanship five years ago. Cates has continued Berry’s work, but also brings his own perspectives to the group.

According to Cates, outreach to American Indian communities continues to be a critical concern. “We need to participate in powwows, take part in cultural events, and engage Native veterans and elders in the process in order to develop the cultural understanding that is needed for helping native veterans successfully address their health care concerns,” he says. “But cultural education of the military is also needed. The military must demonstrate respect and understanding for the specific values of Indian veterans,” he adds.

Cates contends that Native veterans, both men and women, deserve the chance to talk to someone who understands what they are going through. “Diversity training programs aimed at increasing military staff members’ understanding of their patients’ cultural needs must be set in place by Native Americans who possess that cultural knowledge.” He believes this is particularly true when it comes to PTSD.

“Advocacy must include the veteran’s spouse and family as well, since the veteran is not the only one going through the trauma. Helping the spouse deal with the problem helps the veteran heal in the long run,” he says.

Cates recalls the case of one disabled Navajo veteran who needed advocacy after a higher-ranked officer took a medicine bag from him and emptied its contents, suspecting him of carrying an illegal substance. Another veteran, who had been injured twice in explosions in Iraq, was visiting with his wife while recovering in a VA hospital when a sergeant referred to the man’s wife as “a pretty little squaw.”

“Although today we all should know how inappropriate stereotypes are, when it comes to Indians, they are still commonplace in the military. It is not unusual to hear terms like ‘Chief,’ ‘Tonto,’ and ‘Kemo Sabe’ used to address Native soldiers and veterans. More needs to be done on military bases, hospitals, and training facilities to raise sensitivity and cultural awareness,” Cates points out.

Cates also wants to advocate for veterans who have fallen between the cracks because they don’t know or understand the VA system, and they have little or no access to tribal resources. “These veterans don’t get the help they need because for one reason or another, they don’t qualify for tribal benefits. There are many veterans who have Indian heritage but don’t meet requirements for tribal enrollment. Our organization welcomes these veterans as members.”

The NNAVA website is designed to help introduce veterans to available services and contains links to federal, state, tribal, and private service organizations. Membership applications are also available online. Right now, the organization is primarily funded through membership dues and small donations, yet they have members in more than 20 states, representing more than 15 federally recognized tribes.

Perhaps Berry summed it up best when he said, “In traditional Native American culture, health and healing begin first in the spirit, then the mind, then in the body,” he explains. “In the Western model of health care, it’s an opposite paradigm—health and disease begin first in the body, then in the mind, last in the spirit.”

The NNAVA can be accessed on the web at