VA official's visit stirs issues for local veterans

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Rick Romancito

tempo@taosnews.com

The Taos News

Henrietta Gomez, of Taos Pueblo, said she once asked her dad, "Why did you have to go to war? You're a Native American." She said he told her, "That's the reason. I am a Native American. I have to go, to protect our land and our people."

That sentiment has been at the heart of why so many men and women from this tribe have joined the military for decades, going all the way back to the Civil War and on through World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and now Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever they are needed, according to tribal Councilman Gilbert Suazo. But, a consequence of this dedication to service has been, in modern times, the need for a variety of services for veterans upon their return, particularly for those who were fortunate enough to return from Vietnam.

That's where U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Interim Deputy Secretary Scott Blackburn comes in.

Blackburn, along with an entourage of VA officials, flew in to Taos Pueblo Friday afternoon (April 21) aboard a pair of Black Hawk helicopters for what was termed an "Intergovernmental Site Visit and Cultural Tour." Essentially, the visit was a chance for Blackburn to hear from locals how well -- or how bad -- their experience has been with veterans services in this area, along with suggestions for improvement. Blackburn works directly under Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin, who was nominated by President Donald J. Trump and confirmed to his post on Feb. 13, 2017.

Presiding at the meeting held in the tribe's Traditional Council Hall were Taos Pueblo Gov. Ruben A. Romero, War Chief Curtis Sandoval, Tribal Secretary Floyd Gomez and other dignitaries. Following an invocation in Tiwa, the tribe's native language, along with a brief history of the tribe by Suazo and welcoming remarks by Romero and Sandoval, Blackburn took the opportunity to say a few words that seemed to preempt anticipated criticism of his branch of the government. "We, at the Department of Veterans Affairs, are not perfect, but we're working on it," he said. "We're working to be much, much better and would love to hear how we can continue to partner better to serve the veterans - and really the whole Pueblo."

With regard to his appointment on Feb. 26 to Trump's administration, Blackburn called this an "exciting time at the Department of Veterans Affairs. We're very open to ideas and changing and doing things differently and honoring those who have served and changing so we can better improve the overall experience of those we have the absolutely incredible mission of coming to serve."

That mission has been under scrutiny after the president created the White House Office of American Innovation and appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to lead it. Part of the office's job will be to overhaul Veterans Affairs, a process that has been ongoing since 2015 following widespread media reports of mismanagement.

"As some of its first priorities, the office will focus on modernizing the technology of every federal department, identifying transformational infrastructure projects and reimagining the VA system so they can better serve our nation's heroes," press secretary Sean Spicer said in March 2017. "There are certain practices that we can put in place that can help us deliver a better product and better service to the American people in some of these key areas."

In Taos, the concerns among veterans hit home, namely having to do with delivery of services for a range of issues and the naming of a veterans service officer for Taos Pueblo. A VSO is an individual who is employed by their respective states and is trained to know their way around the VA system so veterans can get the services they need. Although many agencies - such as the Taos-Picuris Indian Health Services Clinic at Taos Pueblo and the VA Outpatient Clinic in the town of Taos - serve veterans, it takes a VSO to tailor a vet's services to their specific needs. Taos veteran Francis Córdova said he would like to see the local clinic under VA jurisdiction rather than a contracted facility.

John Romero, a Vietnam vet, said there are 312 men and women from Taos Pueblo who are United States veterans. He and a small committee of vets have been working to establish a memorial in their honor to be erected at the village. He said it is hoped the memorial will be completed for dedication on Memorial Day (May 29). He said during research for the memorial, he came across records stating 110 men from Taos Pueblo were recruited to serve during the Civil War. "Our people have been in all the wars that have happened," he said.

VA spokeswoman Jessica B. Jacobsen said Taos Pueblo was chosen for one of the deputy secretary's site visits "for its traditional significance (a traditional tribe thriving in a modern world), for its veteran population and for its rural geographic location. VA leadership seeks to be inclusive of all veterans as well as responsive to the cultural needs, potential opportunities and challenges experienced by all veterans. Taos Pueblo leadership generously responded to the deputy secretary's interest and graciously welcomed the engagement."

While here, VA officials touted accomplishments, like a memorandum of agreement to provide some housing for tribal vets, health care reimbursement in the amount of $154 million to the Taos-Picuris IHS Clinic and earned benefits from the VA, such as compensation and pension, education and medical services.

"Information from the site visit," Jacobsen said, "will be used to help inform a collaborative policy agenda and will help VA identify what potential programming, partnerships or policy the agency can pursue, in consultation with Taos Pueblo and other tribes, that will improve access to care and benefits earned by veterans at both Taos Pueblo as well as potentially surrounding rural areas. The agency doesn't want to initiate anything without knowing firsthand who will be affected and what impact any changes or effort will have on the community and veteran population."

In addition to the Taos Pueblo site visit, Jacobsen said Blackburn's two-day visit to New Mexico (April 21-22) included visits with staff, leadership, veterans, stakeholders at New Mexico VA Health Care System and the Albuquerque VA Medical Center. He also had a student veteran roundtable at University of New Mexico - highlighting VA's Vet Success on Campus program, gave remarks at the National Conference of State Legislatures Executive Committee in Santa Fe and toured the VA's Santa Fe National Cemetery.

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