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Heitkamp: We will do better

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Every year since 1776, we celebrate our country’s independence. On July 4, perhaps more than any other day, we are reminded that with independence comes collective responsibility. As the masters of our own freedom, we are responsible for protecting and defending each other.

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This July 4, we reflect on the millions of servicemembers and veterans who have fought for our country, each of whom has sacrificed so much for all of us.

After talking with veterans nearly every week in Washington and North Dakota, and visiting cities and towns all across the state to meet with veterans, I hopefully have a better understanding of the challenges they face. When veterans return home after their tours of duty, their battle doesn’t always end; that’s when our collective mission begins.

One important part of this mission that has yet to be fulfilled is properly making sure that services and benefits are reaching all our veterans, including Native Americans who serve in the military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. They have been enlisting in the military at record numbers, even before they received the right to vote.

Last month, I held my first Native American Veterans Summit in Bismarck to learn about the unique perspective and challenges that many of our Native veterans face. With about 140 Native veterans in attendance, I learned a great deal and worked to provide them with more information about services and benefits they had earned.

I heard stories from veterans like BJ Rainbow of the Spirit Lake Indian Tribe who was taught in the military to “overcome and adapt” when confronted with challenges. So when he and many other veterans come back to the United States, they are often reluctant to ask for help, even when they need it most.

When it comes to providing support and benefits for our veterans, we can do better — and we will. That means improving understanding, increasing access and providing critical resources for all of our veterans.

For Native veterans, it all begins with strengthening partnerships between tribes, and federal, state and local governments. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Indian Health Service need to effectively work together to deliver the health care eligible Native veterans have earned, including culturally competent services. And we have to tailor these services to meet the needs of individuals and tribes, and not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.

Moving forward, we have to simplify the system and improve communication, making benefits easier to navigate and understand.

Many Native veterans in North Dakota live in rural areas where they don’t have easy access to VA, IHS or other facilities to speak with folks who can help. That’s why I’m reaching out to Native veterans and local VA and IHS officials to make sure veterans are connected with the benefits they earned. By increasing awareness about tele-health initiatives and making use of existing tribal organizations, we can more directly engage with veterans and make sure their questions are being answered.

In early June, the Senate passed a bill that would improve veterans’ health care options if they live in rural areas and help reduce wait times. It also requires the VA to increase outreach to tribal health programs and makes it easier to hire additional practitioners in rural areas. These changes would make a big difference for many North Dakota veterans, particularly those in remote locations in Indian Country.

For far too long, large segments of our veteran population have been invisible. While not always intentionally, they have been forgotten, overlooked and written off. But we can work to remedy this if we come together in a cooperative spirit and remember that, at the end of the day, our independence is only as strong as our will to fight for those who fought for our freedom.

Heitkamp is a Democrat representing North Dakota in the U.S. Senate. Contact her at heitkamp.senate.gov.

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