Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center
Veterans Express Appreciation for VA Outreach
A two-day Veterans Claims and Benefits Summit, hosted by the Nez Perce Tribal Veterans Program based in Lapwai, Idaho produced gratitude, interest, and further hope among Veterans living in rural America, especially for Native American Veterans living in Indian Country of the Pacific Northwest. The summit was held at the Tribe’s Clearwater River Casino & Lodge near the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, along the historic Lewis & Clark trail through Lewiston, Idaho.
Each year, VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations (VA-OTGR) works with Idaho and Washington State and Federal VA programs to reach Veterans in far-away places, to help them understand the benefits and services available to them. For some, it’s a simple need to enroll in VA. Others want to know more about the Veterans Choice program, how to pursue a VA guaranteed home loan, seek Vocational Rehabilitation, or to file an appeal to upgrade their service-connected disability.
This year, the annual event was opened by the Nez Perce Veteran’s Honor Guard and Tribal Chairman Shannon Wheeler, who said, “once we put on the uniform of the United States Armed Forces, we are all brothers and sisters… as Veterans carry on the spirit of the Warrior.” For Vietnam War Veteran Dennis Paul, the summit followed Lapwai High School’s graduation of 17 seniors. “It was great to see that among the graduates excited to receive scholarships for college, one of our Tribal members announced he’s joining the military! I told him if he likes it, to make the best of it, because (for me) there’s nothing better!” Paul, known as “Gunny” says he’s the Nez Perce Tribe’s first United States Marine to retire from the military. He proudly wears his military and Native American colors and openly shares how, “the VA definitely helped me.” He served the Marine Corps from 1962-’83, including three separate conflicts: Vietnam War 1965-’68; rescuing refugees from Cambodia (1974-’75) on the USS Mobile; and again stationed onboard the USS Coral Sea during the Iranian Crisis in 1979-’80. “It’s hard to believe, but year’s later I learned we actually had three of us from our Nez Perce Tribe all serving in Vietnam at the same time,” he said. “The hard part was the reality of returning home after the service, there is an adjustment for all of us.
I was a logistics officer on flight lines and aircraft carriers during my military career, but couldn’t get a job stocking grocery store shelves back home.” Paul went on to find work, but also realizes that being in his 70’s means he’s slowing down, but using his wisdom and experience to help others. Dennis Paul attended the summit to learn more from the claims and benefits Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who met one-on-one with the more than three dozen Veterans who made time for the summit and a special Veterans Town Hall meeting, featuring the leadership of both Spokane and Walla Walla VA Medical Centers. Paul openly spoke of his own well-being following health care and treatment at VA’s Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, WA in 2006. Now, he’s joining other Native American Veterans advocating for continued VA support in rural America. “We need VA, they understand Veterans better than most,” he smiled.
While State of Idaho Division of Veteran Services joined VBA experts in helping Veterans one-on-one with their claims, benefits, and appeals questions, VHA experts presented Audiology, Social Work, and Eligibility services to Veterans and family members. The evening Veterans Town Hall meeting was also well received, as Veterans and TVRs from the region pleaded with VA leaders to understand the uniqueness of the Native American people, their culture, and their needs. Reservation lands are often located far away from VA facilities. Lottie Atkins of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation appreciates VA, but also wants VA leadership to understand the challenges, including the basics of getting elderly Veterans to their appointments, only to be told they’re five minutes late for the appointment and would have to reschedule. Depending on the roads, a 3-4 hour one-way commute to the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane makes for a long day. “That’s just not what the Veterans want to hear. We must have access and often need assistance helping Veterans who may already have trust issues with the federal government.
We’re seeing improvements, but with so many new people working for VA, it’s important that they understand the realities we see in trying to get care for our Veterans,” pleaded Atkins. VA leadership agreed on the importance of building stronger relationships with Tribal Veterans and nurturing the relationships between VA, the Indian Health Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs on a national level. But they agree it starts at the local level first. That’s why both Mann-Grandstaff (Spokane, WA) and the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Centers (Walla Walla, WA) joined VA-OTGR in bringing VA to rural N. Central Idaho.
Dr. Alan Sias, a tenured VA Audiologist presented the newest technology helping Veterans hear better. VHA staff also included a Veterans Choice Champion and a Social Worker to further assist Veterans seeking to improve their health and understand what’s available to them in rural areas. Whether it’s a Claims & Benefits Summit or Tribal Veterans Representative (TVR) training, VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations and Pacific Region Director Terry Bentley works closely with Tribal Veteran program coordinators to bring state and federal VA staff and resources to Veterans who need it the most. Bentley is a tenured 30-year VA employee and a Native American herself. She promotes open communication and problem-solving for all Veterans living on and off reservation land and has worked tirelessly to not just gain the trust and respect of Veterans, but also for VA to understand the Native American culture and the continued need for VA support. Bentley is also a mentor at Camp Chaparral on the sacred grounds of the Yakama Warrior Nation reservation near Mount Adams in Southwestern Washington State. Each year, she joins many tribal members hosting more than 60 VA employees from VA’s Northwest Network (VISN 20) attend the remote camp for a week-long retreat in August, where they’re taught Native customs, including natural healing benefits, to help educate VA clinicians, nurses, and patient schedulers to better understand and empathize with Veterans, especially those who served in combat, but left with the invisible wounds of war.