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Begich Helps Secure New Veterans Tribal Advocate Position

Goal to better serve Alaska Native and rural veterans

After continued advocacy and education from U.S. Sen. Mark Begich on the need for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to better serve Alaska Native and rural veterans, the VA has announced the creation of a new Office of Tribal Government Relations to ensure the more than 200,000 veterans nationwide who are American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Hawaiian Natives receive the VA benefits they have earned.

Stephanie Elaine Birdwell, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation from Oklahoma, has been selected as the office's first director. A former social worker, she has spent nearly 15 years working on tribal issues with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and, most recently, the Bureau of Indian Education.

"I am so pleased to see the VA respond to my continued requests to find ways to better serve Alaska Native veterans and those who live in rural areas of the state," Begich said. "The challenges faced by many who live away from Alaska's major cities are enormous. I look forward to working with Ms. Birdwell on several key issues facing Alaska Native veterans, specifically access to benefits, health care, and overall education of what services are available."

As part of the effort to convince the VA of the need for a tribal relations position within the department, Sen. Begich organized a weeklong trip throughout Alaska for several VA officials this summer. More than a half-dozen VA under-secretaries and other key officials traveled around Alaska, meeting with veterans and tribal governments to see the needs and challenges first-hand. The group traveled to several communities including Golovin, Nome, Bethel, Kenai and Eklutna.

"There is a long, distinguished tradition of military service among tribal peoples," said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. "VA is committed to providing these Veterans with the full range of VA programs, as befits their service to our nation."

About 200,000 veterans are represented by the 800 tribal governments officially recognized by the United States.  Although VA has long provided benefits to veterans in tribal lands, the new office will further strengthen and expand that relationship.

Birdwell will oversee a six-person office responsible for "establishing, maintaining and coordinating a nation-to-nation, federal-tribal relationship," according to a VA briefing. The office has a charter that officially extends to Veterans who are American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

Last Friday, Begich met in his DC office with another group of officials from the VA, the Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, and the National Cemetery Administration to continue the discussion on the needs of veterans in Alaska. The meeting included Begich's idea for a "Heroes Health Card" which would allow veterans to receive medical care near their homes, saving time and money spent for many who have to travel great distances from rural areas for medical and other services.

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