Tester listens to Native veterans' issues

Billings Gazette

by Susan Olp

LAME DEER — The Northern Cheyenne people are no stranger to battles, a tribal member told U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Friday.

“We have battle sites here in Montana all the way down to Texas, they’re well documented, in defending our traditional way of life,” Steve Brady, chairman of the tribe’s Cultural Commission, told the U.S. senator during a noon listening session at the tribal headquarters in Lame Deer.

Tester traveled to the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations Friday to meet with military veterans in Lame Deer and Crow Agency. Tester also visited with students at Lame Deer High and toured the new Health and Wellness Center at Little Big Horn College.

More than 50 veterans and other tribal members joined in the 90-minute session in Lame Deer. Five large American flags hung in the front of the room in honor of Northern Cheyenne vets who had passed away.

The gathering began with prayer and a flag song played by the drum group the Northern Cheyenne Singers. The aroma of burnt cedar hung in the air even after a smudging ceremony ended.

Before the give-and-take began, Tester was presented a trio of gifts. He received a beaded baseball cap, given on behalf of all the Northern Cheyenne vets; a Pendleton blanket, in honor of a recently returned Afghanistan soldier; and a photograph of 1st Lt. Micah Highwalking, a young member of the tribe who graduated from West Point and is stationed at Fort Riley, Kan.

“I’m humbled by your dedication and the sacrifices made by the individual veterans here,” Tester said to the people in the room.

After that, one at a time, vets in the audience told Tester about the battles they and others have faced in seeking help after their time in the military.

Mark Wondering Medicine told Tester that Native veterans struggle to get the help they need and he offered a solution.

“I think it would be highly appropriate if the federal government would take a good look at the Native American issues and maybe legislate an American Indian veterans act that would accommodate all the needs of the American Indians in their native lands,” he said.

He suggested such an act could establish satellite offices on the reservations to help individuals with the issues they face once they leave active military duty.

Wondering Medicine talked about how veterans get shuffled between U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health facilities and the Indian Health Service, having to wait a long time to get the help they need.

“They should be prioritized, they should be given recognition,” Wondering Medicine said. “We sacrificed, along with other veterans.”

Vincent Whitecrane, a Vietnam vet, raised the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, saying it affects not only vets, but also their families. It’s often misdiagnosed, he said, confused with drug or alcohol abuse.

“I don’t think a lot of people know what it is,” he said.

Whitecrane also said the reservation has a lot of homeless veterans. He said vets struggle finding transportation when they have to travel elsewhere to seek medical help.

“We don’t have people who understand our plight here,” Whitecrane said.

Tester agreed that it’s important for vets with PTSD to be identified and treated.

“That is the best time to get the biggest bang for the buck is to treat PTSD as quick as possible,” he said. “Thirty, 40 years pass, that doesn’t mean you forget about it.”

He acknowledged that the level of mental health care availability to veterans falls short of what it should be, but said he would continue to work to make it more available.

Mark Small, a certified addiction counselor for 40 years, suggested that a lot of mental health counselors could use more training so they could better identify PTSD.

Carol Redcherries, a Korean War vet dressed in uniform and sitting in a wheelchair, called all of the veterans in the room “brave honorable men that gave their time and life for what we have here now.”

Redcherries, the oldest female veteran of the tribe, joined her husband, Rock Redcherries, in presenting the photo of her granddaughter, Micah Highwalking, to Tester.

The senator promised he would take back to Washington the issues that the veterans raised. Before his listening session in Crow Agency, Tester talked about the fact that American Indian vets have problems that are unique to them.

He echoed one of the earlier speakers, saying he’s talked to other vets who speak of the frustration of being bounced between the Indian Health Service and the VA.

“It doesn’t happen all the time, but it has happened because veterans tell me about it,” Tester said. “That’s the biggest thing, combined with the fact that unemployment is so high, that compounds the problem.”

He said he’d like to see the VA working with the Indian Health Service and Indian Housing to help the vets.

“In times of austerity, which we are in, we’ve got to look for ways to save money yet deliver as good of service or better,” he said. “Anytime we can get agencies to work together and communicate, I’d like to do it with memorandums of understanding, but it may require an act of Congress in the end, and if it does, so be it.”