Brian Daffron
Members of the Oklahoma Inter-Tribal Veterans Association Buddy Bond Chapter and the Kiowa Black Leggings Society present the colors at the Stand-Down's opening ceremonies.

VA and Tribal Stand-Down Shows Improvements Despite Underfunding

Brian Daffron

The sounds of the late Kenneth Anquoe’s song echoed through the Cheyenne-Arapaho Community Center in Clinton, Oklahoma, on October 16. Standing out of respect, the assembled Native American veterans, VA and tribal officials watched the flags of the United States and the flags of Southwest Oklahoma’s sovereign nations being moved to the front of the crowd. The members of the Oklahoma Inter-Tribal Veterans Association Buddy Bond Chapter, the Kiowa Black Leggings Society, and American Legion Post 41 stood at attention as Redstone Singers continued to sing a Flag Song. With good feelings and a singular purpose, 208 veterans from all over western Oklahoma found their way around the main hall, speaking to VA and other officials about information and services. At least 25 tribal nations were represented, including approximately 19 non-Native veterans.

With vendors grouped by category – such as legal, housing, and behavioral health –  the tables of tribal officials stood alongside VA offices and other Native organizations. The Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes—the host of the day’s event—was well represented. One of the newer tribal programs was for the Employment and Training Administration, who currently have five veterans in their first year of existence, said director Erwin Pahmahmie Jr.

Another Cheyenne-Arapaho tribal program that is open to all Native Americans with a CDIB is the Meth and Suicide Prevention program. With a six-year history, the program serves a wide range of demographics, from children to veterans. According to the program’s behavior specialist, Kateri Fletcher, over 1,000 people have been helped, with in-patient services and culturally relevant practices available.

RELATED: Not On Our Land: Oklahoma Tribe Latest to Combat Meth In Indian Country

Mary Culley, Seminole/Creek, retired from the U.S. Air Force as a technical sergeant. Now serving as a program specialist with the VA Office of Tribal Government Relations’ Southern Plains and Eastern Regions, she said the stand-downs help tribes establish a trust with the VA, and the VA learns how Native people value their communities and their warriors.

“Family, community and the Warrior Societies are all placed highly in how our tribal nations provide services to not just their Veteran population, but their entire tribal communities,” she said. “An Inter-Tribal and/or Tribal Stand-Down showcases their warrior societies by asking them to post colors, to bring their Princess royalty in to do the Lord’s Prayer in sign language. That prayer and/or a blessing before events is a very important component for ‘good’ healing.”

Free haircuts were one of the many services offered at the Stand-Down. (Brian Daffron)

While veteran males are the largest service demographic of the VA, the Office of Tribal Government Relations works to increase its numbers toward Native female veterans and widows of veterans. Culley said that some female veterans may not feel worthy of services, or that widows may feel that veterans’ benefits are more associated with their husband than them. However, this year’s numbers among female veterans exceeded last year’s. This year’s stand-down included 47 female veterans, with 12 being widows of veterans.

From Culley’s experience, one of the major issues affecting veterans and their ability to get initial services is transportation.

“Rural and Tribal locations face the most difficult issues related to finding transportation for the Veterans in their rural locations to and from medical facilities,” she said, “whether locally or to the larger facilities in the metropolitan areas.”

Although the VA continues to make improvements, there is a long memory among veterans about the VA, with a general feeling that it still has a long way to go.

One of the veterans in attendance was Albert Lujan Greyeagle (Brule Lakota/Cheyenne/Taos Pueblo) from Oklahoma City. Greyeagle came to the stand-down with his niece with the hopes of finding uniform items for his color guard duties. He also told Indian Country Today Media Network that his eyeglasses appointment through VA was three months away. Although the clothes closet at the stand-down was for homeless veterans only, he said he received a lot of valuable information.

“There’s a lot of resources I didn’t know existed with the VA health care system,” he said. “It’s like pulling teeth to find out what’s available to you. There’s [VA services] combined with other Indian services, where they have agreements with them to get health care. That’s something I didn’t know.”

Randy Palmer, Kiowa, attended the stand-down as part of the Kiowa Black Leggings Society’s color guard. The Kiowa veterans’ organization recently concluded its annual Ceremonial, and serves as color guard at many events throughout Indian country. Palmer, who was stationed in Germany during his military service, expressed a sentiment that is common among many American service personnel, regardless of race or nationality. “The VA is overstretched and underfunded,” he said.

“There’s been complaints about non-treatment—not taking care of veterans,” Palmer said. “As far as that goes, we’re basically in the same situation as other veterans. The government really isn’t taking care of the veterans. It’s an ongoing problem.”

Blas Preciado, Kiowa and Vice-Commander of the Kiowa Black Leggings Society, felt there was a discrepancy in the knowledge of VA services between those who served prior to and during the Vietnam era, and those who may have served during the Global War on Terrorism.

“I think when you talk about services to our Indian veterans, it’s sort of divided,” Preciado said. “You have older veterans and newer veterans. Your older veterans who are living—World War II, Korea, ’Nam—those eras. Now you have the younger veterans. Laws were enacted to provide better services to the newer veterans. They’re more attuned to the services that are available. Once they get out of the service, they’re more aware of what’s available. The older ones aren’t.”

Preciado also added that one of the demographics receiving the least amount of service were the Native veterans serving time in prisons.

“One of the things I would like to see more of regarding our Indian men who are incarcerated, especially our veterans,” Preciado said. “I think there needs to be more work toward [helping] non-violent offenders.”

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