This weekend, several hundred veterans turned out for the first ever ‘VA Stand Down’ in Bethel. The event, put on by the Veteran’s Administration, helps connect veterans with services and benefits.
The most visible benefit to veterans was the several container vans full of military surplus gear. But Rick Epperson, Rural Health Program Manager for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, says the gear was intended to connect veterans with bigger benefits they’ve earned.
“Our main purpose is to talk with veterans about many of the benefits that they, many of them don’t even know that they qualify for. Many of em are eligible for compensation for things that happened to them while they were on active duty,” says Epperson.
Francis Utteryuk was an Acting 1st Sargent for the 143rd airborne, serving in Kuwait and Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He says signing up for benefits is important.
“They taught me since I came back I have more visits, privileges and benefits from being disabled,” says Utteryuk.
Some of those benefits are geared towards health care for veterans, which they can now get closer to home. Susan Yeager is the director for the Alaska VA Healthcare System.
“In May 2012, we were able to sign 26 contracts sharing agreements with 26 different native organizations across Alaska. YKHC was the first organization to sign that agreement, and so what that agreement says, ‘any eligible veteran, native veteran or non-native veteran that’s seen at YKHC, is eligible, then we the VA will reimburse for that care,’” says Yeager
Yeager says over a hundred veterans from the Y-K Delta signed up for the VA healthcare plan during their visit last week.
Mike Frueh, Director of the VA Home Loan Program in Washington DC, was also in Bethel for the Stand Down. In addition, he traveled to Y-K Delta villages to work on memorandums of understanding that will help Alaska Native Veterans get direct home loans from the VA.
“I hope it helps a lot of veterans. I know that the home loan program we’ve had for 70 years, we’ve helped 21 million veterans and their families purchase homes, and raise their children and live a life, and own a part of the American Dream,” says Frueh.
The MOU’s will make low-interest home loans available to Alaska Native veterans. The loans will have better rates than the standard VA home loans and can be used for remodeling. Last week the first MOU was signed for Metlakatla in southeast Alaska, the states only official reservation. Frueh says ten Y-K Delta villages have already signed their intent to sign an MOU.
And for veterans in surrounding villages who did not make it into Bethel, more military surplus gear is currently being shipped by a local airline cargo company, Ryanair.