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Searching For Veterans On Alaska's Remote Edges

May 28, 2013
Originally published on November 11, 2016 5:07 pm

When he was in Vietnam, Isaac Oxereok's small build made him ideal for tunnel-ratting: running with a pistol and a flashlight into underground passages built by the Viet Cong. In 1967 he finished his tour with the Army and returned home to Wales, Alaska. Oxereok knew he wasn't quite right, but there wasn't anyone around to tell him how to get help.

"Post-traumatic syndrome?" he said. "I went through that I guess, mostly on my own. Some wounds never really show. So inside was kind of messed up."

Now Oxereok is 69 years old and living at the edge of the Bering Strait in a village of about 150 people. On a recent clear day, the Russian mainland peeked on the horizon over just 50 miles of broken spring ice. Oxereok snowmobiled over to the community center when he heard that someone from the Department of Veterans Affairs was visiting. He had no idea what benefits he might be owed.

"The fact that Isaac doesn't know about this? That's why we're here," said Tommy Sowers, the VA's assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs.

Sowers visited Alaska recently to look at what challenges rural veterans face in getting benefits, but it turns out that just finding them can be a challenge.

Twenty-two million Americans served in the military, but the vast majority are from the Vietnam and Korea generations. They're getting older now, and many live in rural, sometimes remote areas. Alaska has the highest number of veterans per capita in the country — native Alaskans and other vets who got posted up here and never left.

"Once you get Alaska in your blood, it's hard to get it out," says Ron Huffman, originally from Virginia, now living in Nome.

The Air Force sent Huffman here in 1963. Then he met a local woman and got married. He and his wife still return to her tiny village each summer, where they fish enough salmon to last through the winter. He volunteers as a tribal veterans representative — a liaison between the VA and local veterans.

"Most of these vets, they've never applied for any type of entitlement whatsoever," Huffman said. "And a lot of them are at the age now that they're suffering with some pretty severe-type ailments. It would be very beneficial for them to try to get connected with" the VA.

But getting connected up here isn't easy. And though it would seem pretty basic, the VA has no master list of who served. That means someone has to go find them, a point demonstrated by the delegation from Washington, D.C.

"We live in a country where people get to choose where they want to live," Sowers said. "And, you know, once they raise their hand, volunteer and serve, we've got that obligation."

Sowers and other officials flew from Anchorage to Nome and then on a one-prop plane up to a snowy runway in Wales. The local veterans representative, Sean Komonaseak, met the visitors at the plane on his snowmobile, wearing a parka fringed with polar bear fur. Komonaseak allows that the town is pretty small.

"On a good day about 150 people. As far as government organizations, there's hardly any representation," he said. Komonaseak had advertised a meeting for the many veterans and their family members, including a free lunch with fresh fruit and whale meat.

By midafternoon, about a dozen veterans, family members and kids had turned out for the meeting, and Sowers introduced himself as a VA official and a former Green Beret with two tours in Iraq.

"How many here are veterans? Raise your hand if you're a veteran," he said.

But even that turns out to be a complicated question. Some of them were in the Alaska National Guard — and not all guard members qualify for VA. Others asked what benefits they might be able to still get from an uncle or a father who has passed away — survivors' pensions pass to a spouse but not usually to older children.

Many say they've maybe filled out forms in the past but aren't sure they filled them in properly, or mailed them, or ever heard that the VA got the papers. Sowers knows the VA is battling a reputation for red tape and backlog.

"Now, the process is not a quick process. ... But the clock starts the moment we get that form in," he said.

Sowers knows he's only adding to the backlog by bringing these veterans in from the cold, but that's his job. The country owes these veterans, he said, whether it's a home loan or health care or a pension.

But even after traveling 4,000 miles to the opposite edge of the continent, Sowers finds that some of the vets in town don't want to be found.

"Alaska has the highest proportion of veterans that serve," Sowers said. "And in these tribal communities they have an incredibly high percent of folks that served. But even here in a town of 152 people, when we had a veterans gathering, not all of the veterans showed."

A couple of hours into the meeting, people started to get restless. Sowers had registered a few vets and asked folks to go out and tell the other veterans in town to get in touch.

"I asked people here can we get email addresses," he said. "They wisely told me not all have email. Our task is to reach out, but in the time, the tone and the medium the veteran prefers."

A few questions focused on the final benefit for veterans, which is in demand these days as vets get older: a government-issued headstone. It turns out that some of the families in Wales haven't been able to get the heavy markers delivered because they have no street address. The director of the VA for the state, Verdie Bowen, told them to just put down any address on the form and he'll make sure the headstone arrives.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're traveling this morning to Alaska to learn what it takes to reach military veterans in the country's most remote corners. That's what the Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to do - reach these vets somehow to make sure they get the benefits they've earned. The first hurdle is actually finding them. NPR's Quil Lawrence accompanied one top VA official who was on this mission. The first leg of the trip: 12 hours of travel on passenger jets from Washington to Anchorage.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: From Anchorage, if the weather cooperates, it's only a few more hours by jet to Nome, the snowy peak of Mount McKinley out the window on your right. Then from Nome you take a single-prop plane to a little town that counts as remote even in Alaska.

JACK: Welcome on board, everyone. I'm Jack and this is Elaine.

LAWRENCE: Hi.

JACK: Hi. We're heading over to Wales today.

LAWRENCE: Wales is about the same distance from Moscow as it is from Washington, D.C.

JACK: Should be a nice smooth flight, beautiful. And usually we see the Russian mainland when it's this nice. So sit back, relax, enjoy the flight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)

LAWRENCE: A huge number of America's 22 million vets live in rural, sometimes remote areas. Alaska has the highest percentage of vets in the country. Some are Native Alaskans. Others got posted up here and never left.

RON HUFFMAN: Once you get Alaska in your blood it's hard to get it out.

LAWRENCE: That's Ron Huffman, originally from Virginia, now living in Nome.

HUFFMAN: I came up here in 1963 with the Air Force and I met my wife here.

LAWRENCE: Huffman and his wife still return to her tiny village each summer where they fish enough salmon to last through the winter. He volunteers as a liaison between the department of Veterans Affairs and local veterans.

HUFFMAN: Most of these vets, they have never applied for any type of entitlement whatsoever. And a lot of them are at the age now that they're suffering with some pretty severe type ailments, you know, and it would be very beneficial for them to try to get their self connected with the Veterans Administration.

LAWRENCE: Getting connected up here isn't easy. Although it would seem pretty basic, the VA has no master list of who served. That means in remote places like Wales, Alaska, someone has to go find them.

High above the Bering Strait, miles of crumbling ice fill the horizon. It's hard to tell the frozen sea from the tundra. Then a dozen buildings poke up from the pure white. The village of Wales is too cold for trees - a string of telephone poles mark a line along what will be the coast when summer finally arrives.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE)

LAWRENCE: Snowmobiles pull up right up next to the plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOWMOBILES)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We're hunting for veterans here.

TOMMY SOWERS: Sean? Hey, Sean. Tommy Sowers. Very nice to meet you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOWMOBILES)

LAWRENCE: Tommy Sowers is a top VA official out of Washington. He's a vet himself - deployed twice to Iraq as a Green Beret. Sowers says veterans living this far out do test the government's commitment.

SOWERS: You know, we live in a country where people get to choose where they want to live. And you know, once they raise their hand, volunteer and serve, you know, we've got that obligation.

LAWRENCE: Sowers hops on the back of a snowmobile. Driving is Sean Komonaseak. He's got seal-skin boots with hide soles and polar bear fur around his hood. Komonaseak, an army vet, is the tribal veterans representative for Wales, which, he allows, is a pretty small place.

SEAN KOMONASEAK: Yeah - on a good day about 150 people. As far as, like, government organizations, there's, you know, there's hardly any representation.

LAWRENCE: Even in the sun, it's a frigid ride over to the Wales village community building.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOWMOBILE)

LAWRENCE: All right. That's cold.

KOMONASEAK: Did you like that, man?

LAWRENCE: Inside, the heat is cranked up for the main event - a listening session with the veterans of Wales village. The VA entice people out with a free lunch: fresh fruit flown in from Anchorage and whale meat pepperoni. By mid-afternoon it looks everyone who's coming is already here - a dozen vets, assorted family and their kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

SOWERS: My name's Tommy Sowers out of the Department of Veterans Affairs. And how many here are veterans? Raise your hand if you're a veteran.

LAWRENCE: That turns out to be a complicated question. Some of them were in the Alaskan National Guard - not all guard qualify for VA. Others are asking what benefits they might be able to still get from an uncle or a father who's passed away. Survivor's pensions pass to a spouse, but not usually to older children. Most of the vets here have never connected with the VA before. And you were in Vietnam?

ISAAC OXEREOK: Yeah, '66, '67. Artillery, infantry, some tunnel-ratting and stuff like that.

LAWRENCE: Isaac Oxereok is 69 years old. After tunnel ratting for the U.S. Army in Vietnam, he came home to Wales. He doesn't know anything about VA benefits; he's never gotten help.

OXEREOK: Post traumatic syndrome? I went through that, I guess. Get help here and there. Some wounds never really show. So inside was kind of messed up.

SOWERS: The fact that Isaac doesn't know about this, that's why we're here. It's to make sure that when we leave, he does know about it. We start the process. Now, the process is not a quick process. But the clock starts once we get that form in.

LAWRENCE: Not quick is putting it mildly. The VA is notorious for red tape, losing paperwork, and a backlog that means some claims take a year or more to process. And the thing is, Sowers knows that he's only adding to the backlog by bringing these veterans in from the cold. But that's his job - finding them. And it turns out some of these folks don't want to be found.

SOWERS: I mean Alaska has highest proportion of veterans that serve. And in these tribal communities they have an incredible high per cent of folks that serve. But even here, in a town of 152 people, when we had a veterans gathering, not all the veterans showed.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

LAWRENCE: A couple hours in, people are starting to get restless. Kids are running around and playing with a gumball machine in the lobby. The food's mostly gone. Sowers has registered a few vets. He asks for email addresses but most of the older veterans don't have one.

SOWERS: Now, this is another thing...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

LAWRENCE: And then the kids knock over the gumball machine.

That pretty much ends the meeting. Somebody tries to track down every last rolling gumball. Before he goes, Sowers makes a plea to the folks who did show up: Go out and find the other vets in town and tell them to get in touch with the VA. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And NPR's photographer David Gilkey was traveling with Quil, and you can find his photos of Wales, Alaska and portraits of the veterans who live there at our website, NPR.org. We'll hear more from Quil Lawrence tomorrow. Once these veterans are found in these very remote communities, the next challenge is to make sure they're getting the health care that they need. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.