Shiprock native and veteran relishes role of supplying help to other Navajo veterans

Diné Naazbaa Partnership program focuses on one-on-one contact

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Bernie Tyler served five years in the U.S. Army and three years in the reserves.
  • She is a Shiprock native and graduated from Navajo Prep in 1994.
  • She is a fluent Navajo speaker.

FARMINGTON — After graduating from Navajo Prep in Farmington in 1994, Shiprock native Bernie Tyler chose a career path that none of her 11 siblings had followed — she joined the U.S. Army.

It wasn’t until she had been inducted that she really began to ask herself why.

“I was really nervous,” she said, describing herself as just a kid trying to make her way in an entirely new environment. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? Is this right? I’m the first child of 12 to go into the army. … Am I doing this just to get away from all the generational strife (on the reservation)?’”

She might not have been able to see it then, but these days, Tyler said she understands very well why she was compelled to join the service as a teenager — it put her in a position to understand the needs of Navajo veterans and be able to devote the rest of her life to helping Navajo them, which she calls her passion.

“I’ve always been involved with veterans,” she said, noting that even when she was working other jobs, she was helping veterans fill out tax returns or nudging her sons to chop wood to help keep a veteran’s home warm in the winter. “I think it was always in my mind to help veterans.”

Bernie Tyler

In March 2022, Tyler found the perfect way to do that — she took a new job as the program lead for the Diné Naazbaa Partnership program, an organization devoted to helping Navajo veterans, their families and their caregivers through the America’s Warrior Partnership Community Integration Model. The Diné Naazbaa Partnership had been around since 2019, but, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, had not made much headway, mostly because it is a boots-on-the-ground program that focuses on one-on-one contact with veterans.

“This is a special baby I took into my arms,” Tyler said, explaining how she jumped into the task of leading the program on the Navajo Nation.

Tyler, who spent five years on active duty and another three years in the reserves, certainly didn’t lack enthusiasm for the program when she joined it, telling herself, “This is going to be a huge task. This is going to be something big.”

Now, almost a year later, she said the experience has been anything but disappointing.

“It’s panned out just that way,” she said, describing how her experiences have matched her expectations.

“We don’t have a lot of these organizations like mine here on the reservation, so this is special,” she said. “We are definitely ingrained in the community.”

The Diné Naazbaa Partnership operates under a model that values personal interaction with veterans to build trust and establish long-term relationships. It focuses on such issues as homelessness and food insecurity, helping challenged veterans and their families take care of their basic needs and avoid falling into crisis situations.

As a five year active-duty veteran and three-year member of the reserves, Shiprock native Bernie Tyler has a good understanding of the challenges faced by some Native veterans.

Tyler meets those veterans on their own turf — she visits laundromats, post offices and veterans centers on a regular basis, trying to identify those who might need help and gently reaching out to them.

“I don’t prod anybody into coming into our program,” she said, but she lets them know help is available if they choose to seek it.

The Diné Naazbaa Partnership and the America’s Warrior Partnership Community Integration Model under which it operates seek to fill in the gaps where other veterans programs have failed. One of the reasons she believes she is successful in being able to relate to Navajo veterans, Tyler said, is that she is one of them, referring to her own military experience.

The other is that, as a native Navajo speaker, she can communicate with some of them in a way that non-Navajo speaker cannot. She said the partnership’s approach involves four steps — connect, educate, advocate and collaborate.

“The first step is to get out there and learn about a veteran, establish a rapport with them,” she said.

The second step is to educate that veteran about the program, what it offers and how it can help a veteran improve his or her quality of life, she said.

The third step is to advocate on behalf of that veteran, while the final step, collaboration, is the most important one, she said.

“We’re going to bring in partners to make the whole process a success,” she said, noting how the Diné Naazbaa Partnership works with other agencies to leverage its work and provide better outcomes for its clients.

That four-step program works very well, she said, noting how 90% of the veterans who enter it work their way through all four steps. One reason for that success rate, she said, is that she and her associate Karen Shirley, the program’s community coordination associate, keep their attention focused on one veteran at a time, rather than juggling dozens of clients.

“We’re going to focus on you,” she said. “We want to make sure you’re happy at the end of the day with your quality of life.”

Shirley, who works the other side of the Navajo Nation from central Arizona, is invaluable to the overall success of the program, Tyler said.

“I don’t think I could do anything without her,” she said, noting the enormity of the Navajo Nation, which is the largest and most populous indigenous reservation in America.

Tyler said she derives an enormous amount of satisfaction from helping Navajo veterans, but she said it’s not as if her work is a one-way street. She said she gets as much back from those veterans as she gives.

“I think it’s just talking to every veteran and hearing their experiences,” she said. “Each one has a story. You just sit there and listen and say, ‘Wow! Were you really there and did you really do that?’”

Experiences like that compel her to do even more on their behalf, Tyler said.

“I feel like I have to work harder for some of these special vets,” she said.

The Diné Naazbaa Partnership can be reached by calling 928-910-4225.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610

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