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SHIPROCK – A new program under the New Mexico Department of Veterans' Services is reaching out to veterans in rural areas.

The NMDVS has received a $2 million grant under the Rural Veterans Coordination Pilot Grant Program to open rural offices to help veterans learn about state and federal benefits that are available to them.

The grant program is operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Office of Rural Health, which named the NMDVS an award recipient in September 2014. The grant is for two years.

Ed Mendez, director of the Rural Veterans Coordination Program under NMDVS, said the first outreach office opened in Albuquerque in August. Since then, additional offices have opened in Roswell, Santa Clara, Las Vegas and Shiprock.

"In the last four months, we gained momentum and are excited about it," Mendez said.

There are veterans who do not have Internet access or cell phone service, so the region coordinators are helping them by visiting their communities and informing them about various benefits, he said.

He added the NMDVS collaborates with entities such as work force solutions, behavioral health providers, health care clinics, food pantries and community organizations. The region coordinators share information about those outlets with veterans.

"We definitely don't want this program to go away," Mendez said, adding the NMDVS is examining various resources to keep the program operating after the grant funding ends.

Robertson Yazzie Jr. is the Northwest Rural Veterans Coordination Program Region Coordinator for the Shiprock office, which is housed inside the Northern Navajo Veterans Center located along U.S. Highway 491.

Yazzie, an Army veteran who was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and once to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, started working with the NMDVS in November.

As a region coordinator, Yazzie travels throughout the northwest region of the state to find veterans who have not enrolled in the VA health care system. He educates veterans in rural areas about services and programs available to them and their families, as well as connecting them to veterans' service officers who work in NMDVS field offices.

"I'm basically looking in the nooks and crannies, looking under rocks and bushes to find the veterans who aren't enrolled with the VA health care system," Yazzie said.

Another goal of the office is to connect recently discharged veterans with services that can ease their transition from military life to civilian life.

"We can talk the same language. We know all the different cities and towns in Iraq or in Afghanistan. It's a different culture altogether," he said about connecting with new veterans.

On Tuesday, Yazzie, who is originally from Crownpoint, shared information about the program with veterans who attended the Northern Agency Navajo Veterans Organization meeting at the Shiprock Chapter house.

Because the program is looking to help veterans who reside in rural areas, Yazzie can be in the Shiprock office once a week, then travel to chapter houses on the Navajo Nation in addition to visiting communities and the pueblos of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni.

He visits and distributes information in locations as far north as the Colorado-New Mexico state line, south to Zuni, west to the Arizona-New Mexico state line and east to Dulce. He also provides services in Tóhajiilee and Ramah.

"On a daily basis, I say I speak to 10 to 15 different veterans," Yazzie said.

For more information, contact Yazzie at 505-252-5987 or email robertson.yazzie@state.nm.us. Information can also be found on the New Mexico Rural Veterans Coordination Program Facebook page.

The NMDVS also has established a toll-free hot line for rural veterans and their families to access information about services and programs at 1-800-672-7006.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

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