Native American Veterans Embrace Resilience and Overcome Health Care Challenges

For Melodi Serna, 44, serving in the army is a family tradition. Her great-grandfather served in World War I, her great-aunt in World War II, her grandfather in Korea and her great-uncle in Vietnam, she said.

“Then it was my turn,” said Serna, who is from the North Dakota-based Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.

She enlisted in the Navy as a hospital corpsman in 1996 and now works as the executive director of the American Indian Center of Chicago, a cultural and community resource that has served the city’s Native American community since 1953.

Native American women, like Serna, constitute a higher segment of the veteran population compared to other races, proportional to the size of their demographic group.

Women make up 11.3% of the Native American veteran population, which is a higher percentage than women in other demographic groups. For all other races, women make up just 9% of the veteran population, according to a 2020 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs that used data collected in 2017.

Serna attributed Native American participation in the military to their role as protectors.

“I think when you look at the core and traditional values ​​of who we are as Indigenous people, we are protectors of the water, we are protectors of the land,” Serna said. “We protect what is normally and what was ours, and has always been ours.”

According to Angela Pratt, 46, president of the Osage Nation Congress, many Native American women join the military because of their “warrior spirit”.

“I just think it comes back to our spirit and that feeling of wanting to make a difference…because that’s what our people teach us, to be better and to do better,” said Pratt, who served as a specialist. army from 1996 to 1999.

But many face challenges accessing health care after leaving the military, including distances between clinics, managing families, culturally appropriate health care and historical mistrust of the health system. Despite these obstacles, Native American female veterans demonstrate resilience and continue to serve their communities and country.

go the distance

After leaving the military, many Indigenous female veterans find it difficult to return to civilian life, said Sonya Tetnowski, an Army veteran who is now CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Indian Health Center.

One of the biggest challenges facing Indigenous women veterans is the distance it takes to reach the health care services provided by the VA. This is true for Aboriginal people living in urban areas, but especially for those living on reserves.

“Distance is a huge thing all over Indian Country, period, for men and women,” said Mary Culley, a 20-year Air Force veteran who is Seminole and Creek and registered with the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Culley currently works at the VA Office of Tribal Government Relations.

If treatment requires specialist care, travel can take several hours because many VA clinics provide urgent care services but not specialized treatments, said Rose Mcfadden, an Army veteran and member of the Navajo/Dine tribe.

While living on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, Mfadden said she routinely traveled up to six hours one way to Phoenix to seek treatment for a service-related disability.

“Most of the time, that higher level of care will need to be at one of the major VA facilities, and most of those are in major cities,” she said.

Mcfadden is also vice president of Native American Women Warriors, a group focused on raising awareness of issues faced by female veterans.

Mcfadden and Pratt pointed to the balancing act that many women have at home. Between childcare and work, health care is often sidelined.

“A lot of the time women don’t even make the time to go to the doctor regularly,” Pratt said.

Historical mistrust and barriers to seeking care

Many older Indigenous veterans don’t necessarily want to receive VA services due to a historical lack of trust in the medical system, Tetnowski said, adding, “There are still challenges and trust there- low.”

Throughout US history, many Indigenous patients have been subjected to discriminatory medical practices and an establishment that structurally privileges traditional Western medicine.

According to a Government Accountability Office report, between 1973 and 1976, Indian Health Service records show that more than 3,000 Aboriginal women were sterilized without their consent.

This lack of trust has led many Indigenous veterans to seek care that fuses their cultural practices with traditional Western medicine, providing them with “culturally competent care.”

The Aboriginal community is not a monolith, and their traditional methods of healing are not the same in different tribes and nations. However, finding culturally competent care remains a priority for many Aboriginal people.

In her role at the VA, Culley frequently examines what services can be improved for Indigenous female veterans, asking “What aren’t we doing that we need to do? What should we bring to the table for you? »

She added, “It’s interesting that for a lot of female vets…it’s cultural.”

The VA plans to expand an initiative created in 2020 – the Rural Indigenous Veterans Health Care Navigation Program – which connects Indigenous veterans with peers in their communities to help them find culturally competent care. .

While veterans often use the VA for specialized medical services, Tetnowski said for “daily…regular medical needs.” Aboriginal veterans tend to prefer their local Aboriginal health clinic, where they feel a strong sense of community.

Tetnowski, CEO of the Indian Health Center in Santa Clara Valley, said his clinic has a veterans advisory committee dedicated to meeting the needs of Native veterans.

Finding culturally appropriate care is especially important for veterans seeking help for mental health issues, including PTSD and various forms of trauma.

Culley highlighted the work she continues in Oklahoma, where she connects VA psychologists with tribal mental health to merge care for Native female veterans.

“They’re okay with that, now it’s just a matter of getting all the key players together to figure out how we’re going to plan this,” Culley explained.

Despite the many barriers community members face when seeking health care, Indigenous women veterans say they continue to persevere.

“We have survived a lot of things over several generations. We survived residential schools, separation from our children, and the resilience of our communities is specifically tied to survival,” Tetnowski said.

Comments are closed.