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Searching For Veterans On Alaska's Remote Edges

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."

Wales, Alaska, has a population of about 150, including about a dozen veterans. The hunting and fishing village is cut off, except by aircraft, all winter long until the ice breaks up on the Bering Strait.
David Gilkey / NPR
Wales, Alaska, has a population of about 150, including about a dozen veterans. The hunting and fishing village is cut off, except by aircraft, all winter long until the ice breaks up on the Bering Strait.

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.

Local veterans representative Sean Komonaseak drives a snowmobile with Tommy Sowers (back seat) and Sean Foertsch across the ice to the village of Wales, Alaska.
David Gilkey / NPR
Local veterans representative Sean Komonaseak drives a snowmobile with Tommy Sowers (back seat) and Sean Foertsch across the ice to the village of Wales, Alaska.

"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.

Isaac Oxereok, 69, fills out the papers needed to register for full VA care and benefits. Oxereok was in the Army and served in Vietnam from 1966-67.
David Gilkey / NPR
Isaac Oxereok, 69, fills out the papers needed to register for full VA care and benefits. Oxereok was in the Army and served in Vietnam from 1966-67.

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 woman holds the door for her daughter at the entrance to the Wales community center, where a meeting for local veterans turned into a gathering for many of the villagers in the tiny town.
David Gilkey / NPR
A woman holds the door for her daughter at the entrance to the Wales community center, where a meeting for local veterans turned into a gathering for many of the villagers in the tiny town.

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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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