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Program trains veterans for civilian work skills

BEDFORD, Mass. - Robert Duns-more, Crow Creek Dakota, is a long way from his home in Fort Thompson, S.D.

Dunsmore has lived for the past year in Massachusetts while receiving training within a veterans exchange program that will provide him with supervisory construction and business skills.

The program, called the Veteran's Exchange Training Service Initiative, is administered between the Black Hills and Bedford veterans administrations.

This fall, Dunsmore will begin classes in carpentry at the North Bennet Street School, founded in 1885 in Boston's historic Haymarket section.

Accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, with all courses approved for the training of veterans, the demanding program accepts only a few of the hundreds of annual applicants.

''Bob Dunsmore is one of the biggest successes of the program,'' said Bernie Cournoyer, who began the initiative at the Bedford VA.

Dunsmore, a Vietnam veteran, is the first American Indian to attend the North Bennet Street School.

Five veterans - three from South Dakota and two from Alaska - are currently enrolled in VETS. A recent recruitment effort resulted in eight more candidates, including four women.

''We realize we are asking a very difficult thing, to leave a reservation to undergo construction training with a minimum six-month commitment in another part of the country,'' said William Lanning, of the Black Hills VA.

''The first week,'' Lanning said, ''is the most difficult.''

After the first group of veterans returned home to South Dakota several years ago, Lanning asked them to participate in focus groups. ''We recognized that housing had to be better, and jobs had to be ready sooner. Now, the vets live in a structured situation and work is available for each within five days of arriving,'' Lanning said.

According to Cournoyer, ''The economy here [in Massachusetts] in the trades is doing fine, so we have been able to find work. We coordinate with Homeland Security, DOD [Department of Defense], VA Medical and GSA.''

In August, Dunsmore was remodeling offices at a military site in Providence, R.I. Others were rehabbing offices at the VA Medical Center in Bedford.

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''Our intent is to have each veteran prepared and trained so that when they return, they can have their own construction crews and keep the income on the reservations,'' Cournoyer said.

''At first we targeted Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge because of the 87 percent unemployment history,'' said Lanning. ''We wanted to see if we could create jobs, employ vets and also to impact the homeless rate, the lack of housing and the housing that is in poor repair.

''There are many big construction projects here, but outsiders do the work and then leave. So when they are done, there is very little economic impact on the reservation. We want to keep the income stream here, on the reservations,'' Lanning said.

The Black Hills VA already has success assisting Native businesses that produce and sell high-quality, brain-tanned items such as medicine pouches to large-scale Internet catalog companies.

But coordinating a program in another state produces a different set of challenges. As Lanning explained, ''We [admittedly] struggle with transportation [veterans must pay for their bus ticket to and from Massachusetts] and communication costs, and everyone must be prepared to cook meals.''

The exchange is also intentionally cultural. Close bonds are formally forged with such centers as the United Native American Cultural Center at the former Fort Devens in Ayer in north-central Massachusetts, former Nipmuc country.

Thousands of descendants of the tribal peoples continue to live in the Devens area, only a few miles from the scene of several systematic attacks during King Phillip's War.

Abenaki (Aln8bak), Huron of Lorette, Iroquois of the Mountain and other ''hostiles'' supported by the colonial French government of Canada joined with Massachusetts Natives and ambushed the then frontier towns of Nashaway (Lancaster) and Groton for prisoners and materials during the conflict.

The late 17th- to early 18th-century wars are considered by scholars to be the wars that began America as well as the foundation of the first reservation systems (the Praying Indian Towns).

As part of the exchange of history and tradition, on many weekends the five veterans go to some of the numerous pow wows that unite tribes and others in New England.

''We noticed that there weren't any local Native honor guards at these pow wows, so we started one,'' Dunsmore said.

According to UNACC Executive Director Cynthia Martin, Mi'kmaq of Millbrook, Nova Scotia, the cultural center began its ties to the exchange program when she met Rod Isna of Eagle Butte at a parade in Boston several years ago.

Martin said, ''Largely due to Isna's [parallel] efforts with the states' veterans administrations, two years later the first group of trailblazers from South Dakota arrived in Massachusetts. We honor our veterans, and they have come here.''

Native veterans from any state interested in the exchange program may call Bernie Cournoyer at (781) 687-3017.