Central veterans like proposed legislation

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Oct. 2, 2011

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Veterans at the first public hearing for the proposed Navajo Veterans Act here Oct. 21 were generally supportive of the legislation, which would give veterans greater input into policy and financial issues that affect them.

Some, however, wondered if Navajo veterans would be better off forming their own non-profit corporation to apply for and receive grants.

The proposed legislation, which Navajo Veterans Affairs Program Manager David P. Nez emphasized is not carved in stone, would formalize the present chapter and agency Navajo veterans organizations and also create a Navajo Veterans' Advisory Commission to give direction to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The 100-odd veterans gathered at the Chinle Community Center Oct. 21 liked the idea.

"The laws shouldn't be made for us," said Jonah Jones. "We should be making the laws."

However, the suggested composition of the seven-member commission drew some controversy. Johnson Claw, commander of the Central Agency Veterans Organization, objected to having one commissioner represent female veterans, as is specified in the draft legislation.

"I represent all veterans regardless of gender," he said. "Let's don't divide divisions again. We're all one unity."

But a woman veteran, Nora Eskeets, said female vets do have their own issues that need to be considered, whether or not one actually serves on the committee.

Others objected to the inclusion of a Gold Star Mother (a woman who has lost a child in combat) on the committee, opining that it should include only veterans.

Some vets feared that if the veterans' organizations are absorbed into the government, funding will be lost to administration that could have gone directly to services. They suggested that the vets instead form their own 501(c)3 organization.

But David Yazzie, a Gulf War vet, said there's no reason vets can't both be a part of the government and have a non-profit.

Yazzie said he has been pressing for formal recognition of the veterans' organizations since he was Chinle Chapter vice president four years ago.

"We were behind, and now with this, we're going to be put ahead," he told the crowd. "We need a lot of parts throughout the chapters, state and nation."

Most Navajo veterans, for example, are not a part of national fellowship and advocacy groups like the American Legion, which could also give them a greater voice and access to services, Yazzie pointed out.

Without the Veterans Act, he said, "We don't have no voice, no law ... we're just a special interest group."

Vietnam vet Larry Brown of Nazlini and several others proposed that the law include language redistributing funding for veterans' services. At present, Brown said, any funding set aside for veterans is distributed equally among the chapters, short-changing more populous chapters like Chinle.

Brown suggested divvying up the money according to the number of registered veterans in each chapter.

But former Chinle Agency Veterans Organization Commander Jackie Burbank said he'd like to see some of that money stay in Window Rock ... or wherever the headquarters for the veterans happens to be.

"If we divide it up among 70,000 Navajo veterans, it's not enough for us to even build a house," he said. "We can use it for a facility in Window Rock or even Chinle."

Burbank pointed out that the Department of Veterans Affairs is now housed in "a run-down trailer over 45 years old."

He would like to see a building veterans could be proud of, he said, including a museum, library, conference room and maybe even a gymnasium.

Vietnam vet Joe Charles suggested that instead of just giving returning veterans money or materials for housing, the government could exempt them from the onerous regulations Navajos have to negotiate to get a home-site lease - the archeological clearance, for instance.

"Who's stupid enough to build their house on Anasazi ruins?" Charles asked rhetorically.

Whatever happens, said veteran and local minister Larry Hoskie, he'd like to see veterans get away from the "sha', sha', sha'" ("give me, give me, give me") mentality and learn to help each other.

"We gotta be prepared to (do our share) once this comes to pass," he said. "I can volunteer my time."

Other public hearings on the proposed law were held this week in Smith Lake, N.M., and Window Rock. One will be held today (Thursday) at 2 p.m. at Monument Valley High in Kayenta, and the final one will be tomorrow (Friday) at 9:30 a.m. at the Shiprock Chapter House.

The act is actually the fourth attempt at formalizing veterans' input into the government. Similar legislation was proposed in 2008 and again in 2009, but stalled in committee.

While the Human Services Committee was debating yet another bill last year, the Navajo Nation attorney assigned to the committee suggested they get input from veterans before finalizing it, which is why the series of hearings is being held this year.

A final draft of the act will incorporate suggestions gleaned from the hearings.

Veterans and their families may also submit written comments to the Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs, P.O. Box 430, Window Rock, AZ, 86515. Comments must include the commenter's full name, the date, and a valid mailing address.

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