Summit promotes veterans' benefits
In the wake of the national controversy regarding exceedingly long waits for veterans to receive health care nationwide at Veterans Affairs hospitals, the second annual Native Wellness Institute's "Veterans Summit: Gathering of Warriors" concentrated on helping veterans - Native and otherwise - access benefits they deserve for service to their country.
Hosted by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde at Uyxat Powwow Grounds on Thursday and Friday, July 10-11, the summit brought representatives from the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center out to Grand Ronde to talk about how veterans can navigate the federal agency, which has a reputation for its bureaucracy.
Even Joanne Krumberger, the new director of the Portland facility, traveled to Grand Ronde on Friday to participate in an afternoon listening session.
A similar Thursday informational panel featured five staff members from the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center to talk about the MyHealtheVet program (www.myhealth.va.gov), programs specifically for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, suicide prevention, the women's veterans program and minority veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs mobile Vet Center also was parked on the powwow grounds.
The Veterans Affairs representatives were not immune to the frustration that veterans across the country feel about their post-service care, or lack thereof, from the federal government.
About 20 veterans and family members during the Thursday afternoon informational panel chastised Veterans Affairs representatives for everything from difficulties in obtaining a needed walker, a long delay in obtaining an identification card and speaking a bureaucratic language that most Native Americans, and Americans for that matter, do not comprehend.
One of the primary organizers of the Veterans Summit, Charles Tailfeathers (Cree/Blackfeet), commented on the issue during his opening speech on Thursday.
"It has been 43 years since I've been out of Vietnam," he said. "Three weeks after I left, I applied for services. I haven't heard from them since."
Tailfeathers said the major impetus of the Veterans Summit is to help veterans obtain benefits they deserve. "We can do more for our soldiers … our children."
In addition to Veterans Affairs representatives, this year's Veterans Summit featured tables from the Yamhill County Veterans Services Office, WorkSource Oregon and the federal Bureau of Prisons. Tribal Health and Wellness Department staff members were on hand once again to provide blood pressure checks and dental exams.
"I served in Vietnam," said Tribal Council Chairman and Marine Corps veteran Reyn Leno during his opening remarks. "It was always about taking care of the guy in front of you and the guy behind you … the guy out in the foxhole in the dark. I see this Veterans Summit as an extension of veterans trying to take care of other veterans."
The Veterans Summit opened Thursday morning with a blessing given by Tribal Elder and longtime Tribal Council member Kathryn Harrison. The colors were brought in by an honor guard that included Tribal Veterans Special Event Board members Wayne Chulik, Steve Bobb Sr. and Raymond Petite. Other Honor Guard members included Tribal member Brenda Tuomi, Veterans Royalty Queen Savannah Ingram and Marine Corps veteran Percy "Gunny" Brandon.
Land and Culture Manager Jan Looking Wolf Reibach, an award-winning Native flutist, performed taps to open the ceremony.
In addition to Leno, Tribal Council members Toby McClary, Ed Pearsall, Jack Giffen Jr., June Sherer and Jon A. George attended all or part of the summit.
Navajo code talker Peter MacDonald Sr., 86, returned to the Veterans Summit for the second consecutive year to recount how members of his Tribe were recruited by the U.S. military to speak Navajo code to secure American communications during World War II from Japanese code breakers. The code was never broken.
"When our way of life is threatened, we all come together to defend this great country of ours," MacDonald said about his service in the Marine Corps. He is one of 30 surviving code talkers.
MacDonald was greeted by a song from the Tribe's Chinuk Wawa Immersion preschool children.
Other dignitaries who attended this year's Veterans Summit included Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs Director Cameron Smith, a Marine Corps veteran, and Terry Bentley (Karuk), the Veterans Affairs Department's Tribal Government Relations specialist for the western region.
"I want to thank our hosts," Smith said. "This is a powerful statement of support for veterans."
Smith said there are 320,000 veterans in Oregon and that the summit was an important part of "connecting our veterans to other veterans, and their benefits."
"If we can help one veteran," Bentley said, "then that's a success story."
Smith awarded a framed certificate to Leno for the Grand Ronde Tribe's contribution to the World War II Memorial in Salem that was dedicated on June 6. Tribal members also blessed the memorial.
Like the inaugural event in 2013, all Veterans Summit meals were provided by the Tribe and an honor board allowed those in attendance to write the name of a deceased veteran on a sticky note and place it under the conflict in which they lost their lives.
A carved, wooden memorial of the iconic Iwo Jima flag raising honored Howard Brandon, who was killed in action in March 1945. He was the brother of Gunny Brandon.
On Thursday evening, the Grand Ronde Canoe Family sang and drummed in the nearby plankhouse, Achaf-hammi.
Each day started with a somber ceremony to honor and remember those warriors still held captive or missing in action.
Throughout the summit during breaks, veterans participated in talking circles and spouses and relatives made crafts, such as beaded necklaces.
On Friday, attendees listened to Linda Woods (Ojibwe), an Air Force veteran, talk about warrior women and her experiences serving in the military in the 1960s. After her speech, she gifted U.S. flag and eagle blankets to Leno and Bobb, respectively.
The Friday afternoon listening session involved Krumberger and Chris Marshall, director of the Portland Veterans Affairs regional office.
Krumberger said the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center is one of the fastest growing in the country, seeing 200 to 300 new veterans every week. She said the 3,500 employees at the Medical Center serve more than 8,200 veterans. Forty percent of the employees are themselves veterans, she added.
Krumberger said that since she arrived six weeks ago, the number of veterans waiting longer than needed for appointments has decreased from 1,800 to 140.
"Because of our astronomical growth, we've been challenged with access," Krumberger said.
Marshall also reported good news. His office is switching to an electronic records system and is now 95 percent paperless. This has helped a backlog of veterans' cases drop from 9,000 to 4,440. "By 2015, we hope to be down to zero," he said.
Later that afternoon, Portland Social Security Administration Public Affairs Specialist Alan Edwards addressed the gathering.
Navy veteran Nick Sixkiller was master of ceremonies throughout the summit.
"We want you to leave here as a stronger person than when you came," said Jillene Joseph (Gros Ventre), executive director of the Native Wellness Institute. "This is an informal healing ceremony."