Native Americans serve in large numbers but decry VA service on reservations: NPR

Jestin Dupree, Army veteran and Fort Peck tribesman, helps Native veterans on the reservation get the medical help they need.

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Jestin Dupree, Army veteran and Fort Peck tribesman, helps Native veterans on the reservation get the medical help they need.

Sarah Mosquera for NPR

POPLAR, Mont. — When Jestin Dupree left the military in 2014 after 17 years, he was tired.

“I ended up doing five overseas assignments. I went to Bosnia in 2001, Afghanistan in 2003, Iraq in 2005, Iraq in 2007. And then [Iraq] again in 2010,” he says, “My body was…the ‘check engine’ light came on.”

He moved to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana, but things didn’t calm down for him right away. He rode the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal Council there, and even went to Washington, DC, to testify before the Senate about VA care for Native vets. He was invited to be one of 15 veterans on the first-ever VA Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs. It was around this time that he realized he had tried to help his people without taking the time to help himself.

“I guess I’ve been so busy…coming out of the military myself diagnosed with PTSD, I couldn’t get treatment,” he recalled.

And when he tried to get treatment, he says, it wasn’t easy.

Aboriginal veteran Gerald Jackson lost both legs to diabetes. With the help of Jestin Dupree, Jackson travels five hours to Billings, Montana, where the nearest VA hospital is located.

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Aboriginal veteran Gerald Jackson lost both legs to diabetes. With the help of Jestin Dupree, Jackson travels five hours to Billings, Montana, where the nearest VA hospital is located.

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Jestin Dupree regularly visits Aboriginal veteran Gerald Jackson. Dupree often helps Jackson with errands such as grocery shopping, depositing checks, and attending VA hospital appointments.

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Jestin Dupree regularly visits Aboriginal veteran Gerald Jackson. Dupree often helps Jackson with errands such as grocery shopping, depositing checks, and attending VA hospital appointments.

Sarah Mosquera for NPR

A memorial dedicated to Assiniboine and Sioux veterans who served in the US Army at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

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A memorial dedicated to Assiniboine and Sioux veterans who served in the US Army at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Sarah Mosquera for NPR

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the military at proportionally higher rates than any other group, but they often struggle to access care because VA facilities are remote or pending. It took Dupree six months to get an appointment, he says, and when he did, the therapist wasn’t a vet, he wasn’t Native, and it didn’t go well. past.

“First time opening up to mental health. Traveling through these countries I’ve been through and going through these situations, a lot of my friends have committed suicide that I’ve been deployed with,” he says, ” Hearing a guy who’s never been through what I’ve been through, tell me, you know, to me, it was like he was brushing it off.”

Studies show Indigenous vets have a higher incidence of PTSD — and Dupree says there’s still a strong stigma around getting mental health help. This first bad experience was enough to discourage him.

“They called me four days later, and I said, ‘You know what? Do me a favor, lose my number. Don’t ever call me again. I don’t feel comfortable talking to you.’ “, he says. .

What made Dupree feel better was helping other veterans. He took a job with the tribal government checking vets who live throughout the reservation, which stretches 90 miles along U.S. Route 2 in northeastern Montana.

“Life is a little slower, but in turn, I like going to meet these other veterans. Many of them don’t know the help that’s available to them,” says Dupree.

Some days, Dupree drives vets to their appointments at the VA in Billings, Montana — about 10 hours round trip, and that’s in the summer, when it’s not snowing. Other days, he just makes his rounds, checking on older vets who don’t have cellphones or internet. And some vets he likes to visit because it’s fun for him, like Kenneth Ryan, the former president of the tribe.

Native veteran Jestin Dupree spends many hours driving, visiting elderly veterans to help with errands, or getting to appointments at the VA hospital in Billings, Montana, five hours on the road.

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Native veteran Jestin Dupree spends many hours driving, visiting elderly veterans to help with errands, or getting to appointments at the VA hospital in Billings, Montana, five hours on the road.

Sarah Mosquera for NPR

Jestin Dupree was born in Poplar, Montana on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, but left to serve in the U.S. Army from 1998 to 2014. He eventually returned to the reservation when his daughter called and told him. said, “Dad, I want you to go home now.”

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Jestin Dupree was born in Poplar, Montana on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, but left to serve in the U.S. Army from 1998 to 2014. He eventually returned to the reservation when his daughter called and told him. said, “Dad, I want you to go home now.”

Sarah Mosquera for NPR

Kenneth Ryan, a member of the Assiniboine Tribe, sings a traditional warrior song about war. “You can’t be a leader in your community until you see the battle,” Ryan says.

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Kenneth Ryan, a member of the Assiniboine Tribe, sings a traditional warrior song about war. “You can’t be a leader in your community until you see the battle,” Ryan says.

Sarah Mosquera for NPR

“You can’t become a chief of your tribe until you go to war,” Ryan said, explaining why natives serve in such numbers.

Ryan joined the army in 1965, to be a paratrooper. Instead, the military decided he was too good at typing and put him on clerical work. It was difficult, because Ryan wasn’t sure he really fulfilled the warrior tradition. But his elders told him yes.

“They called you and you went, you didn’t say no. And you would have done anything they would have done to you,” he says.

Veterans are honored at ceremonies and tribal celebrations – and Ryan says he was welcomed home with a song.

“Well, they sang that song for me. That’s how I am — I’m a veteran. And I’m one of the most privileged men in the whole world,” Ryan said.

Jestin Dupree says helping veterans access their VA benefits and closing gaps in VA care on the reserve is her new mission.

“For example, if I didn’t do anything today, I would go and check every single one of them,” he says.

Native veteran Jestin Dupree raises and lowers the American flag daily near the Native Veterans Memorial in the heart of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

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Native veteran Jestin Dupree raises and lowers the American flag daily near the Native Veterans Memorial in the heart of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Sarah Mosquera for NPR

Nohemi M. Moore