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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Tribal Nations Conference
Washington, DC
November 13, 2013

Secretary Jewell, thank you for your leadership of the White House Native American Affairs Council, and thank you for inviting me here today. I am honored to be here.

  • Senator Dorgan, I would like to express my appreciation for your leadership on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs when you had that post;
  • Other distinguished members of Congress present, as well;
  • Brian Cladoosby, President of the National Congress of American Indians;
  • Other distinguished guests, and among them, I include the "Code Talkers." It is great to see all of you;
  • Ladies and gentlemen:

As is my custom, I greet the tribal elders and tribal leaders with deep respect. And I extend that deference to all the Veterans in the audience—let me invite our Veterans to stand, if you are able, or raise your hand so we can acknowledge your service. Thank you, all.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have a long and proud history of service to country in battle. Even before they were recognized as citizens, 14,000 fought with honor and courage in World War I. Forty-four thousand served in World War II, among them the "Code Talkers" from more than thirty tribes. Some 10,000 served in Korea—among them former-U.S. Senator and Northern Cheyenne Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Navy Admiral "Jocko" Clark, a Cherokee, also a Veteran of both World Wars. Over 80,000 Native Americans served in Vietnam. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, Army Specialist Lori Piestewa was the first Native American woman to die in combat, the first American woman to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the third generation of her Hopi family to serve in war. Today, some 30,000 Native Americans serve around the world, preserving the Warrior Ethic, a part of your culture.

Let me greet you in the tradition of the land where I grew up: Aloha, e komo mai. I grew up in Hawai'i under martial law in the 1940s following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Men from my community, like Medal of Honor recipient Senator Daniel Inouye, went to fight World War II with indomitable courage, determination, and sacrifice. In doing so, they were amongst the most highly-decorated Army units in the history of this country, earning twenty-one Medals of Honor. They fought and bled so young Japanese Americans like me would have the full privileges of citizenship. They all remain heroes in our community today.

The war in Korea quickly followed, and then Vietnam became my turn to go to war, the first time in 1966. I never planned on being a career Soldier, but 38 years flashed by quickly, every day focused on two things: accomplish the mission, and take care of Soldiers and their families.

Today, as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, I have the privilege of caring for those I went to war with in Vietnam, those I sent to war as Army Chief of Staff, and those giants in our history who saved the world during World War II, and saved a Nation in the 1950s.

Among them are heroes like Army Lieutenant Van Thomas Barfoot, a Choctaw, who during World War II outflanked and destroyed two enemy machine gun nests, forced a third to surrender, destroyed a Tiger tank and forced two others to withdraw. Exhausted from this battle, he still managed to evacuate two seriously-wounded Soldiers nearly a mile to safety. For his actions, Van Thomas Barfoot was presented the Nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor. Another three-war Veteran, Barfoot went on to serve in both Korea and Vietnam.

Heroes like Marine Corporal Ira Hamilton Hayes brought great honor to his Pima tribe during World War II, when he helped fellow Marines raise our national colors atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. After the war, Corporal Hayes suffered terrible mental issues and died from exposure. He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

And that is one reason I am here today. I cannot change the records of injustice in our histories, the lack of trust some may have about government or this Department, but I intend to make things better, and I need your help.

Most know VA as a large integrated healthcare system with over 1,700 points of care, including 152 medical centers, 829 community-based outpatient clinics, 300 readjustment counseling Vet centers, and some seventy outreach and mobile clinics. But VA also provides $10 billion in educational benefits annually, second only to the Department of Education. It guarantees nearly 1.8 million home loans—the only zero-down entity in the Nation. It is the country's largest life insurance enterprise, with $1.3 trillion in coverage and 6.7 million clients, and it operates the country's largest national cemetery system—131 cemeteries, in all.

Some 337,000 good people come to work at VA every day, nearly one-third of them Veterans. We bring the same determination, initiative, and leadership we learned in uniform to our duties. As we were taught, people do not care what you know until they know that you care.

We are still pursuing better ways to serve. In 2010, VA and the Indian Health Service signed an updated Memorandum of Understanding to enhance collaboration and resource sharing between our two agencies. Then, in December 2012, working with Secretary Sebelius and Dr. Roubideaux, we signed a National Reimbursement Agreement. So far, under that Agreement, over 2000 eligible Native American Veterans have received VA-reimbursed care from Indian Health Service and tribal health programs. As of today, 106 Indian Health Service facilities are reimbursement sites. We have also entered into reimbursement agreements with thirty-five tribes and tribal entities, and we are working closely with sixty-two more. For Fiscal Year 2014, President Obama has budgeted $52 million specifically for VA reimbursements to Indian Health Service and tribal health programs. We can do much more this year.

We are expanding VA's home-based primary care program to reach tribal lands by co-locating resources at Indian Health Service hospitals and clinics, tribal clinics, and VA community-based outpatient clinics that are adjacent to tribal lands.

Over the past five years, VA's Office of Rural Health has dedicated $45 million to fund 101 initiatives located across Indian Country—mental health, transportation, mobile clinics, PTSD treatment, home-based primary care, homeless Veterans, and tele-health projects that increase Native American Veterans' access to healthcare specialists, while minimizing long commutes, especially for the chronically ill.

Over the past three years through the Native American Direct Loan program, VA has funded over $18 million in mortgages to Veterans living on trust lands. And to honor your culture by ensuring that Native American Veterans are laid to rest in the tradition of the tribes, over the last three years we have committed more than $19.5 million to the Rosebud Sioux, the Yurok, the Pascua Yaqui, the Oglala Sioux, and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma for the construction of new tribal Veterans cemeteries. In 2014, five more grant proposals will total nearly $5.25 million.

In January 2011, VA established our Office of Tribal Government Relations to improve communications so we could be more responsive to your needs. Deputy Assistant Secretary John Garcia and Director Stephanie Birdwell—my personal picks and my trusted agents—are charged with increasing tribal Veteran access to VA services and benefits. In February 2012, I signed our first Tribal Consultation Policy so we can communicate directly with Tribal Governments on Veteran-related issues affecting Indian Country.

Over 156,000 American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans live in the United States. President Obama and I are committed to providing equal access to all Veterans. With the support of the Congress, President Obama has increased his budget requests for the VA by over 50% since 2009—rural or urban, remote, Native American, all earned the same benefits and services.

I took this appointment to help President Obama make things better for Veterans quickly and to change this Department for the long term so that all Veterans, including Native American Veterans, will be well-served and treated with the dignity and respect they demonstrated in serving our country.

Mahalo. God bless each of you, and may God continue to bless our Nations.