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National Native American Veterans Leadership Conference Albuquerque - Speech

National Native American Veterans Leadership Conference - Albuquerque, NM
July 29, 2002

Good afternoon everyone.

I want to thank Mike D'Arco and the New Mexico Veterans' Service Commission for extending me the privilege of speaking at this important conference.

I was particularly pleased to accept when I found out the meeting was in Albuquerque.

I attended the University of New Mexico and began my career as a veterans' advocate here, serving as a district director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars back in (year?). Albuquerque has changed a lot since then. It's grown, diversified, and become a metropolis in the Southwest.

Unfortunately, there are some things that have not changed so spectacularly for the better.

Some of them are the issues being discussed at this conference.

Native American veterans, wherever they may reside, still remain America's invisible veterans.

I know Hollywood has recently given some belated recognition to the role of Navajo code talkers in World War II.

Some historians may know that Native Americans served in our nation's armed forces even before they were recognized as citizens with the right to vote.

That five Native Americans have won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

And that today there are more than 190,000 Native American veterans.

But how many of us - and I must include government officials and policy makers in this - truly understand the critical issues facing Native American veterans in the areas of health care, housing, education, training, vocational rehabilitation, disability compensation, and other important social programs?

That's why we have come together at this magnificent Cultural Center. To put a spotlight on these issues, to gather information, and make recommendations so that Native American veterans will be invisible no longer.

We must recognize and celebrate the special assets Native American veterans bring -- a rich diversity of cultural experiences and sensitivities; a commitment to integrating the needs of family with the demands of work; a holistic concept of the relationship between society and the natural elements that support it.

I am working to foster this kind of holistic approach for improving the Veterans' Employment and Training Service.

And I know my friends Tony Principi and Leo McKay are doing the same thing at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Bringing together such a broad a diverse group of experts like those gathered here can generate powerful impetus for change and improvement.

President Bush's management agenda calls for a one-government approach to providing programs and services and I agree with that approach for veterans' services.

Veterans don't really care what agency administers the services they need. They just want to know that they can count on getting what they need when they need it.

Native American veterans understand, probably better than any other group of veterans, that the best programs and services are no good if you can't get to them; if they don't reach you where you live and work. A real life example of this problem that comes to mind is the tragedy of Ira Hayes.

A true hero who overcame so much adversity only to die alone and neglected.

We can only wonder what he could have accomplished with his life after Iwo Jima if he had gotten the help and support he so desperately needed.

We cannot allow this generation of Native American veterans to suffer the way Ira Hayes did.

We're trying out different approaches to overcoming these barriers.

Technology is one of the best ways I know of bringing information to people no matter where they are.

We've just created a new Internet gateway that puts hundreds of web sites with information for veterans just one click away. It's called e-VETS and the web address is on the cards that I've left on the information table.

But what if you don't have a computer or can't get to one easily?

Technology was never intended to be a substitute for personal service - for people to people interaction.

That's where our veterans' employment representatives - DVOPs and LVERs -- perform an irreplaceable service.

I believe every veteran who looks to the public employment service system deserves to find a good job and have a better life. DVOPs and LVERs are trained in case management to bring individualized services to every veteran that needs it.

They know the local labor markets, the employment trends, and the employers who have jobs that match the skills of the veterans they serve.

In states with significant Native American populations, I want to work with our state partners to make sure that DVOPs and LVERs are located, at least part of the time, in rural areas and in locations convenient to Native American veterans. We are re-engineering our Transition Assistance Program workshops for recently separating service members.

These workshops will give our 21st century veterans the information they need to be successful in our 21st century economy.

But information about available jobs is useless unless you have the skills necessary to qualify for them.

And very often, Native American veterans need additional skill training to qualify for good, career-building jobs.

While most of the job training funds allocated to VETS under the Workforce Investment Act goes to states under a competitive process, I, as assistant secretary, do have discretionary funds available.

July 1 began our new program year funding.

I would like to see proposals for training and job placement programs geared to the particular needs of Native American veterans.

You know the situations in your communities; you know the organizations that can provide the services.

Get together with your tribal leadership and develop a concept paper that I can react to.

Demonstration projects on the local level are the best laboratories in which to test new and innovative programs.

I know that in the past VETS has funded grants to serve Native American veterans.

I would like to see VETS again be able to fund projects to help Native American veterans obtain training and job placement services.

Let's see if this conference can open a dialogue between VETS and Native American veterans organizations that will lead to programs tailored to Native American veterans.

The People of the Seven Council Fires [this is how tribes of the Sioux nation refer to themselves] have a prayer that says we are all relatives; we are all within the circle of life.

When we put on that uniform, whether Marine, Army, Navy, Air Force, or Coast Guard we became one and the same, men and women who are dedicated to carrying on the task given to us by those who preceded us. In this way we secure the liberties that all human beings deserve to enjoy in our global community.

When we are relatives, we have obligations to each other; we have a responsibility to care for each other.

In that spirit, I wish you every success in building a brighter future for the generations yet to come.

Thank you.