Senator Tester attends listening session with Crow veterans
Big Horn County News
Senator Jon Tester participated in a Crow Tribal Executive Branch veterans listening session on Friday, January 14. The session was held at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency. About 30 people attended the event.
Crow tribal chairman Cedric Black Eagle introduced the session. He said he wanted to talk about some concerns regarding Federal benefit programs that are available to tribal veterans. “We have a long history of Crow tribal veterans,” Black Eagle said. “There are an estimated 1,500 Crow tribal veterans, with approximately 150 of that number currently on active duty.”
“The Crow tribe has never taken up arms against the United States in our history. We have fought alongside the United States from the beginning of our affiliation with the non-Indians. That is part of our history,” Black Eagle said.
“The Federal government also recognizes that American Indians do not take full advantage of Federal benefits available to veterans, either because they are not aware or do not understand them,” Black Eagle said. “This is a major problem that both the Crow tribal government and Federal government need to address.”
Senator Tester thanked Crow veterans for their military service, adding, “That also means that we need to live up to the promises we made when you signed the dotted line.”
Tester acknowledged there were many challenges to be faced, and that he was at the listening session to hear what those challenges are from the perspective of Crow veterans. Tester said he will take back what he learns and “either administratively or through an act of Congress try to figure out some way to fix it.”
Veterans express their frustration with the VA
The first veteran who spoke expressed his concern about the ability of new veterans coming home to find suitable work.
Tester said the government had done some things to improve job prospects for veterans, including offering a tax credit for employers who hire veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There is also a new program from the Department of Defense that certifies skills veterans used during their military service to aid them in finding civilian jobs.
“There’s things that are happening,” Tester said, “but here’s the key: We can never do enough.”
Another Vietnam veteran spoke of his experience trying to receive services from the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). He repeatedly filled out the same home renovation loan paperwork for an entire year, he said, before finally giving up. He said he also had problems accessing medication from the VA, as other veterans in attendance also described.
He said he finally wrote a letter to the VA. “This is it. You don’t call me. I’ll call you when I need you, and I won’t ever need you,” he said.
He also expressed his frustration with the doctors at the VA hospital. “They don’t know us. They don’t care. They really don’t,” he said.
Robin Korogi, Director of VA Montana Health Care System, asked at which clinic he had encountered this problem.
“The one in Billings,” he said. “They don’t care about you. They sit in there and they ridicule you while you’re sitting there. That’s no good.”
“Folks in the VA, they need to care,” Tester said.
Tester also announced that within the past year they had passed a law adding a number of diseases that are automatically attributed to military service for Vietnam veterans, including cancer and diabetes. Tester said veterans need to keep checking with the VA, even if they have been denied benefits in the past, as benefits like this may change.
Another veteran spoke about difficulty getting records transferred from Indian Health Service (IHS) to the VA. “The VA continues to deny benefits because IHS will not transfer records, and the VA will not accept what IHS does send,” she said.
VA services on the Crow reservation
Korogi said mental health services are now available on the Crow reservation. Korogi said the VA is working toward offering medical services on reservations through a memorandum of understanding with Indian Health Services. Under the proposed arrangement, the VA would conduct clinics at IHS facilities, but VA personnel would staff the clinic, and would also bring their own computers and records.
One veteran noted how the VA staff in Billings have repeatedly told Crow veterans they must go to Helena to start claims.
Korogi said they do not need to go to Helena, and they should be able to be helped in Billings. Additionally, five people have now completed training to be tribal representatives. These tribal representative can help Crow veterans start the claim process without even leaving the reservation.
VA services not understood by veterans
Crow veterans made frequent comments about a lack of awareness concerning certain programs and services. On several occasions, Tester or Korogi mentioned a program or service only to be advised that Crow veterans at the listening session were not aware of the availability of that service or program.
Korogi said her staff has been discussing bringing VA representatives, social workers, and housing assistance representatives to the reservation for an entire day to provide a one-stop information resource for Crow veterans.
“We’ll advertise it ahead of time, let all the veterans come in who have questions or issues, and take care of them there. Instead of you guys having to figure out where to find us, we’ll come to you,” Korogi said.
“There is an education process that needs to be done here, obviously, so that you guys know what is available,” Tester said.
Korogi said veterans with questions about benefits or services can contact her office at Fort Harrison. Her office phone number is 406-447-7900. Korogi’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.