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Some Native Americans hesitant to get help from VA

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
July 26, 2013

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The following was written by KOSU’s Quinton Chandler.


Thousands of Native American Veterans don’t apply for the benefits they earned during their time of service. Many end up living off relatives, and sleeping wherever there’s room. No deed, no lease in their own name. So recently the Department of Veterans Affairs held a special event called Stand Down to try and reach as many of these vets as possible. But they faced major obstacles like, cultural values and bad blood that stems from past experience. I went to Shawnee to find out why so many Indian vets don’t take help from the VA…

Stand Downs are regular events the VA uses to bring resources like food, clothing, shelter, and counseling to homeless or at risk veterans. I’m at the state’s first inter-tribal Stand Down in Shawnee’s Gordon Cooper Technology Center. The idea was to draw out the state’s Indian veterans through a VA partnership with six tribes.  Lenny Vile with the Oklahoma City Department of Veterans Affairs says they had to rethink the way they approach these particular veterans because the word homeless doesn’t mean the same thing to Indian people.

“Homelessness isn’t a word that resonates with Native Americans. They wouldn’t let a family member be on the side of the road or in a camp. They would be on their couch and that’s still homeless.”

Mary Culley is with the VA too, but she’s also a Seminole and Creek Indian and a 20 year Air Force vet.

“For me and my family they’re fine where they are. We don’t consider them that way.”

She has a flexible take on this. On the one hand…

“I work for the VA, so I know that it is a homeless issue.”

But then again…

“Inside as an Indian there’s nothing wrong with it to me.”

“We take care of our brothers and sisters and our aunts and uncles. There’s nothing wrong with them sleeping on our couch or in our spare bedroom so we don’t consider them homeless. So they don’t consider themselves homeless.”

And that may be why the VA doesn’t know how many of these vets are homeless because, they don’t identify with that word. But, why don’t these veterans look into the other benefits the VA has to offer.

“Not only the medical center services, but our health services, our benefit education, our home loan, there are all sorts of services that are out there for them.”

Lenny estimates over 20,000 Indian vets are in the state. And only around 3,000 have registered just for the VA’s health care services. That’s a lot of people who are off the grid. Here’s Larry Ponkeelah, a onetime Marine from the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas.

“A lot of Native Americans have their own pride. They don’t just want to go ask for help. If this was just for all veterans I probably wouldn’t have came. But they said it was for Native American veterans and that kind of gave me the courage to come up here and see what it’s all about.”

Then there’s Thomas from Meeker who is also Seminole and Creek. He was in Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield and now he uses VA resources to help him battle PTSD. But, he says it’s hard for him to trust what he calls the “system”.

“It’s because of bad experiences, not just in the military life but in my civilian life. Even in the Indian community there are certain people you can’t trust because they’re so involved in the system.”

Let’s go back to Mary for a second.

“Years and years ago many of our World War II vets tried to go to the VA for assistance and the VA said no. When the government said no you take that no as no is no.”

“That’s why a lot of our vets don’t have benefits, don’t have the services, are not enrolled….”

“You’re brought up in a home where your parents and grandparents have been mistreated by white society and then they put that mistrust in you by talking about that in the home.”

“That mistrust is passed down from one generation to the next.”

But, a bad experience isn’t the reason Randy Sneed, a Vietnam era vet, doesn’t take the VA’s help. He told me he turned down practically everything they had to offer at the Stand Down.

“…Except for this sandwich and this bottle of water.”

“I use what the Cheyenne people call…. a lot of people refer to it as a sweat lodge but we refer to it as the sacred way. That’s where I find my healing.”

Three other vets are at the lunch table with Sneed and he says over and over his hope that he might see them was the only reason he showed up.

“And it’s not that I don’t appreciate what they’ve done. I just came here to have a relationship with my brothers again. And I don’t need to carry that in a bag I carry that in my heart.”

Mary believes this won’t be the last Inter-tribal Stand Down. She says there are so many more veterans out there who aren’t signed up and they need to reach them.


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