Gila River Indian Community finds new way to support its military veterans

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Row Lewis shows U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough the Ira Hayes collection at the Huhugam Heritage Center in Chandler on July 23. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs)

Veterans who are members of the Gila River Indian Community can now get help with benefits and pension claims closer to home, through the community’s participation in the Tribal Representation Expansion Program.

“We are immensely proud to be recognized as a Tribal Veteran Service Organization by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs,” Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said during a July 23 formal recognition ceremony.

“Our veterans, and their families, have made untold sacrifices to defend our Nation and protect the values we hold dear,” Lewis said. “This designation will continue our community’s commitment to ensuring our veterans receive the support, care, and benefits they have honorably earned by serving in all the branches of the armed forces.”

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs officially recognized The Gila River Indian Community on July 19, making it only the second Tribal Nation to earn recognition. The Navajo Nation was first in 2022.

The Tribal Representation Expansion Program aims to expand access to competent, qualified representation for Indigenous veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The program enhances representation for Indigenous people while working to honor tribal sovereignty by promoting avenues toward accreditation within tribal communities.

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough visited the Gila River Indian Community on July 23. During his visit, McDonough said he was reminded of the amazing tradition of military service within the community.

“It was a great opportunity to underscore the profound relationship by recognizing the Veterans and Family Services Organization as a tribal service organization,” McDonough said.

According to the Department of Defense, Indigenous people serve in the U.S. military at the highest rate per capita compared to other racial groups. Despite high enlistment and service connection rates, a lower percentage of Indigenous veterans, 41.6%, used at least one U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs benefit or service, compared to 52.7% of veterans of other races.

“This suggests many Native veterans may not be aware of or have access to a wide variety of benefits and services available to all U.S. military veterans,” the Department of Veteran Affairs said in a media advisory. “VA established the Tribal Representation Expansion Project to expand access to complete claims services for Native American veterans to ensure they are pursuing the benefits they are entitled to receive.”

The VA has awarded almost $40 million to Arizona veterans and their survivors for claims filed under the PACT Act, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. The PACT Act is a new law that expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances.

“Arizona has a great tradition of service to the national defense, Native Americans in Arizona have a great tradition of service to the national defense,” McDonough said, adding that on behalf of the Nation, “Thank you very much.”

There is no deadline to apply for PACT Act benefits, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs, but there is urgency. Those who apply for PACT Act-related benefits by Aug. 9 could have their benefits backdated to Aug. 10, 2022.

This story was first published by Arizona Mirror. It is republished here with permission.

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Shondiin Silversmith, AZ Mirror
Shondiin Silversmith, AZ Mirror

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.