Oklahoma's Native Veterans
There are more than 12,000 Native Americans serving in the military, but it's difficult to know how many are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We do know that, on a per capita basis, there are more Native Americans serving on the front lines than any other population.
Thomas Barry, a Choctaw Indian from Oklahoma, served five years in Vietnam, as well as Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Last year Barry started a group called the National Native American Veterans Association. Thomas suffers from severe post traumatic stress disorder, irreparable nerve damage and degenerative joint disease in his lower back. Barry knows how difficult it is to move through the VA system and decided to start the association to help Natives with that process and to give a voice to vets whose traditions are often overlooked.
Oklahoma has 2,083 men and women fighting overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan and 355,312 veterans, according to the Department of Defense. Over 500,000 veterans nationwide are locked out of the VA health care system, including 8,069 in Oklahoma because of arbitrary enrollment requirements.
What's the state of Native American veterans who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan?
We're facing problems because the troops have been there for a lot longer than we originally thought. The vets coming back face the same problems as the WW II Vets and the Vietnam Vets. I was in Vietnam for almost five years. I know what these guys are looking at when they come back. One of the reasons why we founded the Native Americans Veterans Association is to address the cultural differences between Native Americans and other ethnic groups. The war creates even more problems that are not being addressed for Native Americans who were raised traditionally. Native Americans would not under any circumstance go to war against women and children and when the battle was over, you went home. There was no rotating here and there. There were quite a few Native Americans who served in Vietnam. When they came home, they assumed they could stay home, but they were prosecuted as deserters.
I remember when Lori Piestewa, a Hopi, became the first women to die in combat two years ago. She was also the first mother to die.
Native Americans don't get a lot of recognition, but Native Americans, on a per capita basis, provide more members to the military than any other sector of the American population. Native Americans provide more members to elite forces than any other group of the public sector. Again, this on a per capita basis. We provide more members as an ethic group and utilize VA benefits the least. It's easier to work with your tribal organizations than it is to have to deal with the VA. I'm a 100 percent disabled Choctaw vet. I can go to the VA hospital right here in Oklahoma City. I can also go to the Indian Health Clinic and receive treatment. In some instances, I can get better treatment out of the Indian health service than I can at the VA. I had to reapply at the VA for medical treatment when I moved. If you move out of one jurisdiction, you have to reapply for everything and that makes it hard.
I've interviewed quite a few vets who say the VA healthcare system is difficult to maneuver.
Our organization is trying to alleviate some of those problems by working with individual veterans. We're also trying to work with the individual nations and tribes because under public law Title 38 of US Code, a lot of the programs that the individual tribes provide can be supplemented with VA benefits. If we can educate the tribes as to what is available, we're able to actually educate the tribes on how to combine these programs. Our main focus is on Native American veterans, but we will help any veteran. Every veteran has a common bond. We developed NNAVA to establish a centralized place where Native American veterans can get together. We sponsored what is called a stand-down, where homeless and low-income vets come in and are given clothing. Non-native vets also participated. I'm working now with a steering committee who will then work to put together five stand-downs in the state of Oklahoma over this next year.
Does the government do enough to let the vets know what benefits are available?
They conduct briefings when you leave the military. These briefings are a very quick general overview of what your rights, entitlements and befits are. The military then says, go to the VA for more information. It's up to the veteran to find out what he's entitled to and to fill out the applications.
Has enough been done to reach out to Native American vets?
What would you like to see in terms of programs or outreach?
I'd like to see more tribal interest in the veterans. Funding is also difficult.
Why is funding so difficult when we're spending so much money on the war? We've already spent $313 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's hard to get a government grant. It's not an easy thing to do. You have to take everything on a line item budget. The government is just like any other business. Budgets are prepared by people who have to predict what's going to happen. It's kind of hard for them. I'm not making excuses for them, but it's hard to budget for how much healthcare you're going to need. When you start talking about mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder, it's hard to gage how much money you need to put forward to restore that individual. I'll tell you up front, you'll never restore that individual. I still have a lot of problems. I still have nightmares from things I've seen. I expect to have that for the rest of my life. That's not just me. I have an uncle who was in the Navy in Korea who still has nightmares. That was over 50 years ago. Unfortunately, there is no way to prepare a young man or woman for what they might and will face in a combat zone. You just can't do it.
Do you think the Bush administration is doing enough to support the troops?
I would like to see the Bush administration push for more monetary support. There are hundreds of foundations. There are hundreds of ways of raising money. I'm in the process now of writing project grants. It's a Native American tradition, where a young man who goes into battle will only wear moccasins. Moccasins were made for him to help him find his way home or find his way into the next life. What we're doing is using that Native tradition. We're making moccasins in the traditional manner. We have a list of over 400 Native Americans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are the ones we know about. We're wrapping the moccasins in red flannel. Wrapping something in red is what you do for sacred objects. We're sending moccasins to these young Native American troops as a sign of respect for the sacrifice that they're making. It's a way of honoring their service. We've sent 100 pair of moccasins already.
Have you been in contact with any Native Americans who served in Iraq?
Yes. I'm in touch with one young man who was assigned to a Marine Corps ground infantry unit. He has already completed one term in Iraq. He left to go back to Iraq in June of this year, so he's in the midst of his second tour. I spoke with him on several occasions. He's having the same type of problems that I had when I came home. There are so many of us. When I touch base with him, I give him tips and suggestions. I correspond with him in Iraq now. Keeping up correspondence with someone there is so important. People have so much going on in their lives, but I know from personal experience, when you're sitting in harm's way, getting mail from home helps alleviate the pressure. When I got mail in Southeast Asia, it was comforting. It'll help you pull yourself out of the situation for a few minutes.
Are there many organizations out there that support Native American troops?
We're the first actual national organization. We only started in October of last year and already have 145 active members in 24 states. That number keeps growing. A lot of individual tribes have warrior societies, but those are only for their tribal members.
Was there any one event that made you start this group?
One of the things that made me start this group was the simple fact that I was using services provided by the Choctaw nation while I was waiting for services from the VA. I was with several other vets at the Indian Health Clinic one day and we got to talking about the difficulties in trying to get things done at the VA. I just started doing research and one thing led to another. The more I talked to Native American Vets, the more I realized they had no idea about the VA's benefit structure. It's been tough. It's really hard to get something like this going, but it's worth it because in the long run, Native American vets will benefit.
Why is the VA so difficult to deal with?
Oklahoma has two VA hospitals. They are totally independent of each other. Protocols for treatment are completely different. There's no standard protocol. Unless you know how each individual hospital works, you're stuck. If I need PTSD treatment, I have to go to Dallas, Texas. At this point, I combine services between Indian Health Clinics and the VA. I believe there's 175 medical centers in the VA system and they are all different. If they standardized, they would save a lot of money.
Why don't they?
I have no idea. That would take an act of Congress. They control the VA and I find it disturbing since we have so many Congressmen and Senators who have military backgrounds. They've forgotten what it was like.
Have you seen any drastic efforts to improve the situation for troops since the war started?
I wouldn't call them drastic. Congress has addressed a lot of issues, starting with Iraqi Freedom, but again, it's hard to address everything adequately. Most of the money has to come from the private sector for it to be more effective. It's getting harder and harder to get government money.
Is that right or is it just the way it is? Shouldn't the government be providing the troops with healthcare, especially the ones who make low salaries?
I think it's just the way it is. It's easier to go to corporations. You'd be surprised at the support you can get from small companies. We're not talking national corporations. A lot of charitable organizations had the government to fall back on, but that's falling by the wayside.
Do many vets have private health insurance?
Most don't. The VA has a priority system as far as treating veterans. It depends on what group you fall into. The VA has also implemented a means test so if your assets are above a certain amount, you will be charged. If you have health insurance, the VA will bill your health insurance.
Can you name a few politicians who consistently fight for veterans?
Patty Murray, a Democratic Senator from Washington. John McCain is the strongest proponent for veterans. John Kerry is for the veterans. He may not able to articulate himself very well, but he does a lot for veterans.
What about Bush?
I think he's doing the best he can under the circumstances. I did agree with his decision to go in. I did not particularly enjoy having to see that decision made. In the long run, we'll have a more stable situation in the Middle East. I learned a lot when I was in Desert Storm and Desert Shield. The Arab people are not terrorists. We're dealing with a small faction of the Arab people.
Do you involve yourself in the day to day happenings of the war?
No, there's not enough time to be able to go through all of that. It's really tough just trying to keep up with the changes that affect the VA. Something that most people don't realize is that each indvidual state has a Depatment of Veterans Affairs. We have to monitor changes in all 50 states. There are a lot of things that Congress does that affect the military, which in turn affects the VA, which in turn affects the states. We also have to watch and monitor the appropriations bills. We do listen to what the Presient and the Vice President have to say, but we pay more attention to the Congress.