Veterans from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Photo: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

'Who do you think you are?': Lakota veteran encounters resistance at the VA

With the Department of Veterans Affairs among the many places in the nation's capital lacking leadership, one Native veteran is glad Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) helped derail the man who was supposed to lead the federal agency.

Sonny Bass, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, suffered injuries in the Vietnam War and has experienced other health problems. He told The Washington Post that he still encounters resistance when he seeks care at a VA facility in Montana.

“When I walk in and make a request, they look at me like, ‘Who do you think you are?’” Bass, 68, told the paper.

Though Bass wants the VA to make many improvements, he believes Tester made the right call in questioning the credentials and experience of Ronny L. Jackson, whom President Donald Trump had tapped to serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The Montana lawmaker is the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He also sits on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and has served as its chair and vice chair.

“When he says something about the VA, it has a little more credence with me,” Bass told the paper. “Someone like Tester knows the problem, and he’s on the level of the problem. The other guys are not on the same level.”

Democrats, as well as some Republicans, were alarmed when colleagues accused Jackson of doling out prescription drugs without paperwork, among other alleged transgressions. But Tester, who is running for re-election, bore the brunt of Trump's criticism when the nominee dropped out of the running for the job.

"Tester should resign," Trump said in one tweet after the debacle.

Trump has not named someone to lead the VA. He had announced the firing of former secretary David Shulkin, who had previously served in president Barack Obama's cabinet, on Twitter, just weeks after Shulkin addressed the National Congress of American Indians for the first time as the head of the department.

"Native Americans have fought in every U.S. war," Shulkin told the organization during its winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 14, "but they don't often get the credit they deserve."

"Veterans issues should not be political issues," Shulkin added. "Indian issues should not be political issues."

The department maintains an Office of Tribal Government Relations to deal with tribal veterans' issues and work with tribal governments. Key issues include a partnership with the Indian Health Service in which tribal veterans can seek care at IHS facilities closer to home rather than traveling father to VA ones. The VA reimburses the IHS for such services.

Tribes also have been working with the VA to establish cemeteries for their fallen warriors. The program enables survivors to keep their loved ones closer to home instead of at VA cemeteries further away.

Read More on the Story:
Who should lead Veterans Affairs? Five veterans explain what they’re looking for in a leader. (The Washington Post May 20, 2018)

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