For veterans living in rural areas, getting help for services that range from a medical check-up to psychiatric counseling is difficult. The drive to a major city that has a VA office could take an hour or more. Once a veteran gets to a VA hospital, the wait could take even longer. These factors—combined with other needs such as benefits applications—can be discouraging for both veterans and family members.
Although many Native veterans have issues in common with rural American veterans of other ethnicities, the issues can be even more severe. Drive times to VA clinics may be several hours from a reservation, causing a potential for neglecting chronic health conditions. Seeking opportunities such as applying for benefits online also may not be an option in some tribal communities. Furthermore, language and cultural barriers may exist, making Native veterans feel uncomfortable.
It is for reasons such as this that the VA created the Office of Tribal Government Relations four years ago, in January 2011.
“The VA recognizes that one of the best ways to really understand the needs and priorities of veterans living in Indian country is to recognize the unique relationship that tribes have with the United States,” said Stephanie Birdwell, the director of the OTGR and an enrolled member of Cherokee Nation.
The creation of this federal office was based in part on VA offices already in place that dealt with state veteran agencies and international veteran agencies. The focus of this particular office, said Birdwell, “is to build relationships with tribal leaders, establish a formal tribal consultation policy so the VA doesn’t make decisions or policies about veterans living in tribal communities before we consult with tribes.” Birdwell said that the main issues in which tribal consultation is essential is in regards to care, benefits and economic sustainability.
A year after the office’s inception, OTGR began hosting veterans’ training summits in closer proximity to Indian country. Since 2012, at least 20 have been held throughout the United States, with the latest one taking place at the Chickasaw Nation’s Riverwind Casino and Hotel Conference Center near Norman, Oklahoma. on July 30-31. Some of the information that attendees can take back to their tribe’s veterans’ affairs offices include changes to laws such as the Veterans Choice Act and information on education, home loans, pensions, monetary compensation, and military cemetery grants. In addition, there is also information on helping veterans with less than an honorable discharge to apply for a service upgrade to make them eligible for veteran benefits.
Birdwell said these trainings bring elected tribal officials as well as tribal, state and federal employees “all in one place to really exchange information and provide training so that information can be disseminated. People can really put faces with names and build relationships to really advance the efforts of serving the needs of our vets and their families.”
For Birdwell, the impact that she sees the OTGR having is that it is due, in part, to the voices of tribal leaders being heard by the federal government. In the past, the relationships that tribes had with the VA varied across the country from region to region, what she referred to as “pockets of strength or excellence.” Since 2011, the OTGR goal has been consistency.
“The biggest impact has been more of a consistent recognition, understanding and appreciation,” said Birdwell. “Wherever you go—if you’re going to Washington state, the southwest, east coast or Oklahoma—when it comes to tribal leaders reaching out to VA leadership, you are going to get a consistent response.”
Some of the future plans of the federal office include the increase of seeing more tribal nations create their own offices or departments for veterans’ affairs, as well as helping to implement the “MyVA” procedures that are being implemented throughout the VA system.
Upcoming OTGR regional summits include one currently running through August 22 at Camp Chaparral, Toppenish, Washington and September 22-24 in Salem, Oregon. Additional information on OTGR can also be found on their website.