Associated Press
Phoenix VA Health Care System main campus

VA Scandal: Native Veterans Have Suffered, Former Marine Officer Says

Simon Moya-Smith
5/27/14

In April, CNN reported that at least 40 United States veterans died as they waited for doctor’s appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Arizona. Many were allegedly placed on a secret waiting list.

Veterans Affairs managers in Phoenix are now accused of formulating a situation where up to 1,600 sick veterans were made to wait for months to see a physician.

Emails obtained by CNN show that high-ranking management at the VA hospital in Arizona was aware of the practice and even defended it. 

The issue is ominous, but especially for Native American veterans. It’s reported that Native Americans enlist in the military in larger numbers than any other ethnic group. According to VA.gov, in 2010, Arizona had the second largest population of Native American veterans at 10,943.

Jeff Estep, an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, who lives in San Clemente,  California, is a former Marine captain and a disabled veteran. He recently told ICTMN that he has had firsthand experience dealing with the difficulties and slow response from the VA. “The VA backlog is horrendous; it’s disgraceful,” said Estep, who suffers from back injuries. “I’ve had to suffer in that. I think the VA initially turns down people, and then often turns down people knowing they won’t appeal. It’s exacerbated in Indian Country.” 

As an operations commander in the U.S. Marine Corps, Estep suffered damage to his spinal chord after a jump from a helicopter in Korea in 1980. "The wind got me bad," he said. Estep landed sideways on the ground and today seeks acupuncture for his injuries.

It took four months for Estep to get an appointment to have his medical prescription reordered. Regardless, he said he feels the scandal at the VA has been going on for “some time.”

“I certainly believe, particularly in Indian Country – in Arizona – they’ve suffered, but they’ve suffered for a long time,” he said. “See, we’re only now hearing about it. We probably haven’t even tipped the iceberg with what’s really happened with those folks.”

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Estep, who served in Vietnam, said he does not feel the VA scandal will prevent Native Americans from joining the armed forces. “When you’re 18 or 20, when you’re enlisting, the VA is the last thing on your mind,” he said.

On Monday, which was Memorial Day, the American Legion said the VA scandal had left a “black eye” for veterans.

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