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

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.