Veteran’s Day is a day to recognize and honor those who have served in the U.S. armed forces. Montana has one of the highest ratio of veterans to population in the country and is home to approximately 98,300 veterans. Of these veterans, 3.5 percent are American Indian. Nationwide, more than 150,000 living American Indians and Alaska Natives are veterans, and they serve in the U.S. military at a higher rate per capita than any other group.
Despite the United States’ numerous attempts to eliminate indigenous peoples and languages throughout history, American Indians in the armed forces and their languages were instrumental in World War I and II. Before the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 recognized American Indians as citizens, over 12,000 American Indians joined the U.S. armed forces in World War I (WWI). During World War II (WWII), approximately 12.6 percent of the entire 350,000 American Indian population served.
During the boarding school period from 1879 to 1934, the United States government forcibly removed American Indian children from their families and tribal communities and banned them from speaking their tribal language. However, during WWI, the U.S. military used indigenous languages in wartime communication. In WWII, the United States formalized the use of indigenous languages and asked soldiers from many different tribal nations to develop secret communications. These soldiers are now known as Code Talkers and significantly contributed to the victory of the United States and its allies.
Currently, there are more than 24,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives on active duty in the U.S. armed forces. Despite past and present contributions to the U.S. armed forces, American Indian veterans today often face barriers and challenges to accessing benefits, programs, and services. Some of these barriers include living in remote locations that are great distances from veteran service centers, having limited broadband access, and a lack of cultural competency in veteran services.
All veterans should be entitled to the benefits that the federal government makes available, but for American Indian veterans, these services and benefits are inadequate in comparison to those provided to non-Indian veterans. It is difficult for tribal organizations to assist veterans in the enrollment process for their benefits because of the U.S. Veterans Affairs’ (VA) accreditation process. The VA doesn’t require state departments to be certified as organizations but does for tribal nations and makes it more difficult for tribal organizations to earn accreditation.
This legislative session, the Montana Legislature passed several bills aimed at benefitting veterans and working towards addressing these issues. Some of these bills are included below.
Montana Veterans’ Affairs Division (MVAD) prepares and files claims on behalf of veterans and their families and assists with veterans benefits and other services. However, there are only nine state veteran service offices to service the entire state. HJ 23 implemented a study aimed at improving MVAD. This study will examine best practices for veteran outreach and how to increase the number of veterans served, including veterans in Indian Country.
HB 172 allows counties to establish county and multi-county veteran service offices and provides a grants program in support of veterans and their families. HB 172 contains a $60,000 general fund appropriation for the biennium for the grants portion of the program. Increasing the number of service offices available helps to cut the distance of travel for veterans and makes it easier to enroll and obtain services.
The Legislature passed HR 3 to urge Congress to improve health care services for veterans. HR 3 specifically cites veteran access to health care, mental health services, suicide prevention, and funding for state and local offices as important issues. Montana’s Secretary of State sent copies of this resolution to the President of the United States, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, the Majority and Minority Leaders of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, and to each member of the Montana Congressional Delegation.
Too many veterans in Montana struggle to access their benefits, programs, and adequate health care. Our veterans deserve better, and equitable access for American Indian veterans is crucial.