Native Americans serve in the military among the highest rate, per capita, compared to other groups and our nations honor the place of tribal warriors in our communities and our culture on a daily basis. But for Veterans living within or near tribal communities, it can sometimes be difficult to receive representation for benefit claims.Often, these Veterans cannot reach existing Veterans Service organizations (VSOs) or may not be using them due to cultural barriers.
One way VA has tried to help with this is through a rule change in the Code of Federal Regulations (38 CFR 14.628). This change will allow eligible tribal organizations to become accredited by VA. It is believed that accredited tribal organizations can provide Veterans with better, more culturally competent services.
Over the past year, VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations (OTGR) and Office of General Counsel (OGC) have worked together to implement this rule change.
In March 2016, letters were sent to tribal leaders, asking for their input. A notice was then placed in the Federal Register (Vol. 81, No. 47: Proposed Rules page 12626) which also asked for comments and provided notice of tribal consultation. The comment period closed in April of 2016. In July 2016, a subsequent notice in the Federal Register (Vol. 81, No. 47: Proposed Rules Pages 47091-47093) provided the opportunity to comment on the revised proposed rule. This comment period closed in September of 2016.
There were more comments received from tribal leaders and Veteran advocates than was expected, showing a high level of interest in this rule change.
“This rule is a positive step forward for Indian Country and VA,” said Reyn Leno, Vietnam Veteran and chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “For decades, tribes with accredited facilities have been able to provide quality services to our Native American Veterans and Veterans alike. The piece that was missing was the ability to provide assistance on VA benefit claims. This rule recognizes the unique relationship our tribes have with our federal government and Veterans in some of our most rural communities. No Veteran should have to drive hundreds of miles to receive care they could be eligible to receive next door at a tribal facility. The ability to credential tribal employees as VSOs will also help to further extend services to Native Veterans in a culturally appropriate manner. I applaud the rule and VA for their due diligence on this matter.”
Tribal Nations serve Veterans first. We open our ceremonies and carry the flags of our nations. Today, there are around 1,600 living Chickasaw Veterans. Most of these men and women are Veterans of Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of our WWII Veterans have now passed on and our Korean War Veteran numbers are rapidly dwindling.
But receiving VA accreditation is not an easy process. VA must ensure, as legally required, that all accredited VSOs can provide long-term, quality representation. As such, tribal organizations must meet the same stringent requirements as national and state VSOs. OTGR can assist with tribal applications before they are sent to OGC, which makes the final approval.
VA invites all interested tribal organizations to consider beginning the process of becoming a VSO. For more information, please visit VA’s website by clicking here.
On a daily basis active duty members become Veterans and too many Veterans return home to find that their greatest challenges still lie ahead. War is ugly and it has long lasting effects that challenges the resilience of all people.
The tribal nations are committed to finding the path for our Veterans to become tribal leaders, teachers, business owners, active citizens and successful parents. We work closely with the OTGR and have established a good relationship with this important VA office. I invite other tribes to connect with OTGR as well, as they begin the road to becoming accredited VSOs. The ability to work with local, trusted qualified representatives to file for benefits our Veterans have earned through their service can make a world of difference in the Veteran and their family’s overall quality of life. I look forward to seeing tribal nations begin to support their warriors through this effort to serve those who have selflessly and courageously served our nation.
About the authors: Jefferson Keel is Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation and former president of National Congress of American Indians. Peter Vicaire is with the VA Office of Tribal Government Relations.