Town hall focuses on Northern Agency veterans issues
Congressman Ben Ray Lujan among officials at meeting
UPPER FRUITLAND — Northern Agency veterans voiced their concerns about health care, housing and infrastructure to tribal and federal officials, including U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., during a town hall today.
Alvis Kee, a member of the Upper Fruitland Veterans Color and Honor Guard that posted the colors at the event inside the Walter Collins Center, was among those who spoke. He shared stories about veterans in need of home renovations in order to accommodate wheelchairs or other medical devices.
He said he wanted to know what type of resources are available for veterans with disabilities because there are times when they feel like they are neglected. Kee also wanted to know if the Navajo Nation is looking at establishing veterans cemeteries since members of the Vietnam War era are increasing in age.
Joseph Baca, acting congressional liaison for the director's office for the New Mexico Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Albuquerque, responded by saying the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a grant for home improvements and structural alterations that can improve accessibility and facilities for veterans.
"These things are very doable, but I find out many times all over the state that nobody knows about them," Baca said.
As for establishing a cemetery, Wallace Charley, the veteran service officer for the Navajo Nation Veterans Administration's Shiprock office, said land in Arizona was set aside for such a project during the administration of former Navajo President Ben Shelly. But efforts to establish a cemetery stopped when the tribe did not provide funding for it.
Paul George, former commander of the Northern Agency Navajo Veterans Organization, said veterans continue to face obstacles when seeking health care at the local level.
While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs operates an outpatient clinic in Farmington, specialized services continue to be referred to the VA hospital in Albuquerque, George said.
"We're not getting the health services veterans need," he said.
Luján said his office can assist veterans with problems and issues they have with the VA.
Baca said the Albuquerque VA is in the process of hiring a coordinator to work with Native American veterans as part of the effort to address concerns.
He added the problem of obtaining health care specialists not only occurs in the rural clinics but in the Albuquerque medical center, as well.
Kirtland resident Chester Benally told officials to remember there are a number of Navajo veterans who reside off the reservation.
"We struggle just like all veterans, but thank God that we were able to have employment so that we can buy our own homes off the reservation," Benally said.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.