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Native American Veterans - Storytelling for Healing

Published: October 3, 2012
Native Veterans

Issues Facing Native Veterans Today

The challenges facing native veterans today are similar to those facing veterans of all ethnicities throughout the United States. These challenges include access to healthcare, substance abuse, unemployment, homelessness, and mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Veterans may have different needs depending on the era in which they served and the social climate regarding service; World War II veterans may be hesitant to apply for benefits, feeling they were just doing their duty. Korean Veterans may have health needs related to the cold weather endured during their service. Vietnam veterans may experience physical issues related to Agent Orange, and younger veterans may have symptoms of Gulf War syndrome. Veterans who served during peacetime also need to be aware of the benefits for which they are eligible and how to apply.

Veterans from all eras may experience some level of post-traumatic stress, but not all do. For those who do have post-traumatic stress, the severity can vary. One factor influencing the severity is the type of duties the veteran performed during his/her service. In some cases, institutionalized racism may have influenced the extent to which certain groups are susceptible to PTSD. Native veterans, for example, commonly confronted stereotypes held within the military regarding natives. They were called names such as “chief,” and were often treated as if they had instinctual or mystical powers on the battlefield. This resulted in some native soldiers being assigned hazardous combat duties such as walking the “point,” and being more exposed to hostile fire than others in the unit. In these cases, the level of post-traumatic stress may be more severe and the use of coping mechanisms, including alcohol and drug use, may be more common.

Upon returning home, native veterans may face challenges in accessing care. Often, veterans’ hospitals are located great distances from the rural, remote homes of many veterans. These logistical challenges make it more important for tribes, agencies, and communities to be creative in how they approach working with native veterans. Tribes and native communities are responding to these challenges by establishing tribal veterans’ affairs departments that not only appreciate the unique needs of native veterans, but also recognize the ways that cultural practices can be applied in healing veterans. Language, culture, and ceremony are being revived and acknowledged as integral factors in the healing process.

The following is an excerpt from an electronic article on the Matsunaga Vietnam Veterans Project, which assessed the readjustment experience of Indian, Japanese , and native Hawaiian veterans of the Vietnam War. The article, published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, begins here and can be followed by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Matsunaga Vietnam Veterans Project

Military personnel of many ethnic backgrounds served with distinction in the Vietnam War. The 1988 National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) demonstrated that Black and Hispanic veterans who served in Vietnam experienced significantly greater readjustment problems and higher levels of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than White veterans. To extend the study findings to other minority veterans, the late Senator from Hawaii, Spark Matsunaga, initiated a major project to assess the readjustment experience of American Indian, Japanese, and native Hawaiian veterans of the Vietnam War. This resulted in Public Law 101-507, which directed the VA's National Center for PTSD to conduct what became known as the Matsunaga Vietnam Veterans Project. The Matsunaga Project involved two parallel studies. The Indian Vietnam Veterans Project surveyed a sample of Vietnam in-country veterans residing on or near two large tribal reservations, one in the Southwest and the other in the Northern Plains. These populations had sufficient numbers of Vietnam military veterans to draw scientifically and culturally sound conclusions about the war and readjustment experiences.

The Hawaii Vietnam Veterans Project surveyed two samples, one of native Hawaiians (the indigenous peoples of the Hawaiian Islands, who constitute about 22% of the permanent population in Hawaii) and another of s of Japanese Ancestry (the descendants of Japanese immigrants who comprise about 24% of the permanent population in Hawaii).

The full text of the article can be found at: National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Last Reviewed: October 4, 2016