Taos Pueblo Veterans: We Fought Before We Were Citizens, Where’s the VA for Us?

Scott Blackburn representing the Department of Veterans Affairs took his first visit to Indian country to hear concerns from Taos Pueblo veterans.
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One out of every eight members of the Taos Pueblo is a veteran. That’s 312 veterans out of a total population of 2,600—or roughly 12 percent of this small community in northern New Mexico. In fact, the pueblo traces its military history back to the Civil War, when 110 young pueblo men were recruited to fight.

“Our people have been in all the wars,” said Johnny Romero, Jr., a Vietnam veteran and volunteer advocate for Taos Pueblo veterans. “We still have people in the service, and we’re very proud of this.”

But veterans are not getting the services they need or deserve, Romero said. That’s the message the pueblo delivered to Scott Blackburn, interim deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who visited the pueblo on Friday, April 21.

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Blackburn arrived at the pueblo via Blackhawk helicopter late in the afternoon, then walked down the dirt road leading into the ancient village, where he greeted pueblo leaders and thanked veterans for their service. After participating in a traditional procession through the pueblo’s historic village plaza, Blackburn sat down in the Traditional Council Hall for an open and intimate discussion about veterans’ concerns.

Veterans and citizens alike shared stories of the struggles veterans face in getting services in the pueblo, in the nearby city of Taos, or at Veterans Affairs hospitals or benefits offices statewide. They also asked Blackburn for a veterans’ service office in the pueblo to help streamline bureaucracy and cater services to specific pueblo needs.

Taos Pueblo Veterans, Scott Blackburn, VA Interim Deputy Secretary, Native Veterans

Interim Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Scott Blackburn greets veterans and members of the Taos Pueblo.

“Before we could vote, we fought for this country,” said Shawn Duran, tribal program administrator. “Before we were considered citizens, we fought for this country. But now we have to go through all the red tape of the federal government to get our needs met.”

Others cited specific Veterans Affairs failures—some of which led to dire financial or medical situations. Veterans also have faced gaps in education, readjustment or spousal benefits, according to pueblo members who pleaded for “the same benefits as the non-Indian world.”

For 150 years, pueblo members have served their country to help keep their land safe, Duran said. With service rates at 50 percent higher than the U.S. average, the pueblo has built a legacy from military service.

“Of course we want to protect our homeland because dedication to the pueblo land represents dedication to the country as a whole,” Duran said. “But we need the government to be accountable to our veterans. Our tribal leaders are burdened with the lack of services on a daily basis.”

Blackburn, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, encouraged veterans to “try again” when it came to seeking help. He apologized on behalf of Veterans Affairs for gaps in benefits, medical care or other services.

“I’m a big believer that if you do not take care of those who have gone to fight, then why would their children want to serve?” he said. “We need to take care of those who have come back.”

Blackburn was appointed interim deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs in February. His visit to Taos Pueblo was his first to Indian country.

“I’m impressed with the number of people who have served from here, and the tradition of serving,” Blackburn told ICMN at the end of his visit. “These are amazing people and it was such an honor to be here. Any way the Department of Veterans Affairs can, we’re going to help these people.”