During the AFN convention in Anchorage over the weekend, Alaska’s U.S. senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski brought together officials from both the federal and state Veterans Administration to conduct a Native Veteran’s listening session. The senators were joined by the deputy undersecretary of the VA John Garcia. He said the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki is committed to bringing the VA into the 21st century, using technology for outreach, health care and education.
“All the things you fought to defend….cause I firmly believe and I know these senators believe because I’ve heard them in committees, that if a man or woman raises their right hand to defend the constitution of this country and you’re willing to serve on the front lines and bleed and die for it? You best be on the front lines for jobs, education, health care, housing, all the things you’ve fought to defend, you’ve earned it,” Garcia said.
Verdie Bowen is the administrator for the office of Veterans Affairs in Alaska, he said beginning this week, the VA will be going village to village across Alaska to make sure every territorial guardsman has a discharge document. He says this is important to insure that the military records facility in St Louis Missouri has those documents forever.
“And the good thing about that is, a hundred years from now, our children will be able to go and pull those records and see our service and my goal is sometime this summer, to have 100% of all the Alaska Territorial guardsman with their discharges, located in St. Louis and each village will be notified as we complete them if there’s any living family members left there so they can receive those actual discharges. But if there’s nobody left, we’ll have a record completed in St Louis and that’s a guarantee you have from me,” Bowen said.
And then the flood gate of stories opened and for the next hour, veterans told of struggles with getting VA services because of bureaucracy and because most of those VA services are available only in major hubs or cities like Anchorage making it expensive and difficult for vets in rural Alaska.
A veteran named George from Nome said he’d traveled the country and at one time thought the VA services in Washington DC were the worst in the country, but now he said, Anchorage has that distinction for him. He told of flying from Nome for an appointment at the VA hospital, misplacing his VA card and being refused service, even though he was clearly in their system.
“There’s my picture, there’s my face and they said, you can’t be seen. They said, you’re Native go over to the Native hospital. Well let me tell you, I earned my right as a veteran to use the VA system. I did not earn my right to use the Native hospital because I was born into it, I use the VA,” George said.
He said he would not go back until he got an apology. It came quickly as Alex Spector, the Director of the Alaska VA health care system immediately stood up.
“Sir, I’m the director of the Alaska VA, and I apologize to you for the service that we did not provide you. We should have provided you that service. We’ll get together with you after this meeting, get the information, I’ll look into it personally and I certainly apologize if you were treated that way. It was wrong,” Spector said.
Another veteran tearfully tried to tell of being denied disability benefits for years, finally getting them, only to be told three years later that he suddenly owed the VA $24,000. He was so distraught he could not continue speaking. Another veteran Terresa said after serving in the Middle East she became sick and finally was diagnosed with cancer. She fell behind on her mortgage payments and although the bank didn’t work with her, she said the VA loan servicing center in Denver told her a loan modification program was in the works for her.
“I was told to hang on to that payment and a loan modification was being granted. A liquidation appraiser came to my door and informed me that I was being foreclosed on. I stand behind you right now as a homeless veteran. January, 2003, Alaska State Troopers came to my home and put me and my handicapped daughter and son on our porch. I stand before you homeless, I hold in my hand the regulation and every regulation was broken when it came to my case,” Terresa said.
She said the home still sits empty. The Senators listened and staff took names and information from the veterans. Senator Begich said the benefits Veterans earn must be delivered to them at the highest level possible.
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