The Veterans Administration is trying to reach American Indian veterans in their own communities to let them know about an array of services and benefits available, from health care and mental health services to telemedicine programs.
"One of our highest priorities is Native American veterans," said James R. Floyd, director of the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System, during the Region 8 Tribal Consultation Session held at the Huntsman Cancer Institute on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The gathering included tribal representatives from Utah, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, as well as officials from various state and federal health and human services programs.
Floyd said the VA earned a poor reputation among Native Americans in the Vietnam era.
"The VA is kind of the last place they want to go," he said. "We made them feel that way."
But those perceptions are changing through face-to-face outreach efforts and programs that take services to the veterans, rather than forcing veterans to leave rural communities to come to the programs.
Efforts include tele-health programs and outreach volunteers who are tribal members trained to help others in the tribes get health, education and other benefits they're entitled to because of their military service.
The progress began with listening, said W.J. "Buck" Richardson, Minority Veterans Program coordinator in the VA's Rocky Mountain Health Care Network. He and Floyd attended a meeting with Native American veterans several years ago, where "for a day and a half, they let us know how they felt." It was rough, but they went back for more and eventually earned some trust, he said.
Effort has led to formation of a program that trains Native American representatives to help the veterans deal with bureaucracy and learn what they're entitled to and how to get it, Richardson said. The representatives are volunteers, and there are now 125 trained in 15 states, which include 23 American Indian nations. Most of the volunteers themselves saw combat in a variety of wars.
The VA also employs tribal outreach workers, who are local veterans who work about 10 hours a week for the VA on outreach.The goal, said Floyd, is to reach veterans who are in crisis.