New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services Secretary Timothy Hale was joined by the heads of the state Veterans’ Affairs Departments of Arizona, Colorado and Utah for a panel discussion on Native American Veterans’ Issues during the VA Southwest Native American Veterans’ Symposium on April 25 in Albuquerque.

Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services Director Joey Strickland, Utah Department of Veterans’ Affairs Executive Director Terry Schow, and Colorado Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs Deputy Director Michael Hunt were fellow panelists. Moderating the discussion was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs John Garcia and VA Director for the Office of Tribal Government Relations Stephanie Birdwell.

Native American Tribal Leaders and officials from the southwest attended the three-day conference hosted by  the VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations to foster an open dialogue between are region’s Native Americans and the VA. Topics presented over the course of the conference ranged from improving benefits services, health care concerns, cemetery and burial programs afforded to all veterans—as well as specific benefits, programs and services for Native-American veterans.

During the panel, one of the mains concerns raised during a Question-and-Answer session was the need for more Native-American service officers.

“This is a priority with my department. We are looking to staff more Native American officers in our eastern part of the state,” said Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services Director Joey Strickland, who is an American Indian of Choctaw-Hispanic descent. “We are a big state, with many Native-American veterans living within the Navajo Nation in the eastern part of the state. To supplement our own staff, we have trained 25 Native-Americans to serve as service officers in the region. We hope to increase this number this year.”

NMDVS Secretary Hale pointed out that the Navajo Nation also extends into New Mexico, and that the NMDVS has also trained more than two dozen Native American Service Officers to assist the NMDVS’ own service officers in Gallup and Farmington who are of Navajo descent.

“We understand the need to have service officers who understand the tribal culture,” said Secretary Hale. “My agency is also looking to present a training conference to re-certify our Native American VSO’s—and to develop additional service officers to replace any who no longer work with us.”

One of the main themes of the three-day conference was the need to improve outreach to Native American veterans in the region. Presenters cited the mostly rural nature of the southwest, which makes it difficult for veterans to receive assistance with their benefits and health care needs. The topic was also stressed in the Panel Discussion.

“It’s a real challenge for my department to reach out to our state’s Native American veterans,” said Utah Department of Veterans’ Affairs Executive Director Terry Schow. “Our department isn’t as large as Colorado’s, Arizona’s or even New Mexico’s…and our Native American veterans are smaller in number but are scattered even more so than those in our neighboring states. And I’ve got to do this with a budget that’s been cut every year these past few years. It’s tough, but I have to keep trying—because they’re veterans who’ve served our country and deserve our help.”

“We are a bigger agency—but we also have a bigger veteran population, “said Colorado Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs Deputy Director Michael Hunt, who heads the Veterans’ Affairs division. “We have 81 service officers to serve 450,000 total veterans. We are also trying to recruit more Native American service officers to make sure our Native Americans are not underserved.”

The need to improve communications between the neighboring states and the VA was also stressed throughout the conference. Continued dialogue is key, said VA Director for the Office of Tribal Government Relations Stephanie Birdwell, to better serve the region’s Native American veterans.

“With such a diverse population of tribes and nations, it’s important that we work together to share ideas and solutions to help serve our Native American veterans,” said Birdwell. “I want to thank Secretary Hale, Director Strickland, Executive Director Schow, Deputy Director Hunt and Deputy Assistant Secretary Garcia for working together on behalf of our Native-Americans, and for attending this important conference.”
Native American Conference
Native American Conference

New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services Secretary Timothy Hale (seated at far right) was joined by (seated at table, from LEFT to RIGHT): Colorado Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs Deputy Director Michael Hunt, Utah Department of Veterans’ Affairs Executive Director Terry Schow, and Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services Director Joey Strickland. The panel was moderated by VA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs John Garcia (at podium) and VA Director for the Office of Tribal Government Relations Stephanie Birdwell (seated at table to the right of the podium).

(FROM LEFT TO RIGHT) VA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs John Garcia, Utah Department of Veterans’ Affairs Executive Director Terry Schow, Colorado Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs Deputy Director Michael Hunt, VA Director for the Office of Tribal Government Relations Stephanie Birdwell, Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services Director Joey Strickland, and NMDVS Cabinet Secretary Timothy Hale.