The American Indian Veteran 
by Robert L. Primeaux, Ph.D. Enrolled Member: Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Combat Soldier with D Troop, 2nd/17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division, 1969-70

The American Indian has served in the military of the United States in every war for the past two hundred years. More importantly, the American Indian soldier is the most decorated of all minorities per capita in every war that America has fought in. According to the Department of Defense as of 2012, there are over 22,000 American Indian and Alaska Natives on active duty. The 2010 census identified that there are over 150,000 American Indian and Alaska Native veterans. Twenty-Seven American Indians have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest Military honor.

Providing services to American Indian Veterans can be a complex entanglement of government entities through the Office of Tribal Government Relations (OTGR), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the various tribal governments. Historically, none of these agencies have worked hand in hand with each other or with the tribal governments to help the American Indian veteran.

There are 567 federally recognized Sovereign Tribal Nations in the United States, each of the 567 Tribal Nations speak their own language and have their own culture such as ceremonies to help heal their warrior veterans. There are also an unknown number of state recognized Tribal Nations, and still an unknown number of unrecognized Tribal Nations.

American Indian Tribal Reservations are generally in very remote areas and many of the Reservations are vast distances from VA hospitals and Regional Benefit Office services. It should be noted here American Indian Veterans as well as Tribal Nations have a mistrust of non-Indian US Government agencies and prefer to care for their own.

\The traditional Veteran Service Organizations have not provided American Indian Veterans who need assistance or knowledge of what their rights are within the VA. In some areas across the United States, there are service organizations such as the American Legion with offices on or near American Indian Reservations, but these service organizations do not interact with American Indian Veteran’s, Tribal Council or Tribal Chairman (of that specific Tribe). Outreach services, provided directly to the Tribal Chairman and Council could build relationships on a community level, but fail to do so.

In 1998, the VA signed an agreement with the Oneida Nation in New York State to bring the veterans of the Oneida Nation badly needed medical services, this was a start but there are still 566 more Tribal Nations across the US that need critical VA medical services.

The VA does have the Office of Tribal Government Relations (OTGR) which could connect the dots, government to government. The OTGR has a Director, a Program Analyst in Washington, D.C. but, only four (4) Regional Specialists (RS) to serve all 567 federally recognized Tribal Nations in the United States. In essence, OTGR is divided into Four (4) Regions; each region is responsible for states that are scattered across the US and often are not connected geographically. There are 16 states that have no OTGR management.

The Veterans Choice program is in place and there are still many American Indian Veterans living on reservations nationwide. Many of these Veterans are on reservations with no access to health care. Some health care services are located more than 100 miles away from the reservations. A large number of Indian Veterans do not have internet access within rural areas, access to veteran services will be further denied to these vets as the VA is making its way toward being a paperless agency. There are still a lot of American Indian Veterans who are not aware of all benefits available; home loans, higher education benefits, employment assistance, vocational rehabilitation, extended home care for disabled Veterans, and the list goes on.

The Government program to reimburse the Indian Health Service (IHS) is an inadequate program when it comes to badly needed medical and mental health care. The IHS has no knowledge of how to work with Indian Veterans who suffer from PTSD, Agent Orange, and many other issues that the VA can deal with. Its inefficiency lies in the IHS having little or no knowledge of the many medical services required to properly serve the American Indian Veteran. The badly needed medical services and issues that are specialized in by the VA such as: PTSD, Agent Orange (all various types of 14 cancers caused by Agent Orange), Traumatic Brain Injuries, and the many types of Diabetes. There are 23 Veterans Integrated Service Networks, better known as VISNs in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The IHS is divided into 12 Regions, as in the case of responsibility, the Bureau of Indian Affairs who have offices on all 567 American Indian Reservations should take some form of responsibility to help the American Indian Veteran. Tribal Governments recognizing the many issues confronting the American Indian Veteran have established their own Veterans Service Office administered by the Tribe. A new law approved by the VA on February 21, 2017 provides authority to Tribal Veteran Service Officers to approve claims and submit them to the VA, January 20, 2017 (82 FR 8346) 5 U.S.C. 553 applies to this action. This also allows the Tribal Veteran Service Officer to be approved by State authority to submit claims to the VA, this is similar to all county Veteran Service Officers across the United States.

There are many questions to be asked of the Dept. Veterans Affairs about the Office of Tribal Governments Relations, some of those are as follows:

1) How many Tribal Chairperson’s/Tribal Veteran Service Offices has the OTGR’s Regional Specialists talked to about the American Indian Veterans of that Tribal Nation?

2) Have the Reginal Specialists researched how many American Indian Veterans are in their region?

3) Have the Regional Specialists visited each VA hospital in their region and discussed specific medical issues of the American Indian Veteran, this should also include cultural healing methods that are specific to that Tribal Nation (Sweat Lodge, Specific Prayers and Healing Ceremonies)?

4) How many American Indian Veterans have committed suicide or are homeless in their respective regions?

5) How many American Indian Veterans have visited IHS hospitals as opposed to VA hospitals in each region? 6) What are the main medical issues that America Indian Veterans receive care for at IHS hospitals as opposed to VA hospitals?

Final Thoughts: Agent Orange has 14 types of cancers that are eligible for VA benefits. Does the IHS have the ability to diagnose these cancers? Suicide Prevention on a national level has become a high priority. Vet Centers in states with high American Indian populations could provide cultural awareness classes of Tribal Nations.

There are large numbers of American Indian Veterans who are homeless on Indian Reservations all over the United States and in urban areas. The American Indian Veteran has limited or even fewer resources on Reservations. The resources issues can be solved through the OTGR with the specific cooperation of the DVA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service and all 567 Tribal Governments simply working together.

Dr. Primeaux was awarded the "Sonny Montgomery Helping Hands Award for 2013" from the Disabled American Veterans, and was "Veteran of the Month for September, 2013" from the state of Nevada. He is to this day the only American Indian Veteran in the United States to receive this type of award for national and or state recognition. He has been working on behalf of the American Indian Veteran since the early 1980's. His graduate thesis was "The Psychological and Physical Stress Effects on Athletes who served in combat and their Post-War Sports Involvement."