WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - On Jan. 26, the Navajo Nation Council unanimously approved the Navajo Veterans Act establishing the Navajo Nation Veterans Administration and Advisory Council. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye signed the legislation into law.
The Veterans Administration will provide enhanced outreach, services and benefits to Navajo veterans. The Advisory Council will also allow veteran participation in policy concerning Navajo veterans' issues at the central government level.
"By communication directly with commanders at the agency and local level, hand-in-hand with our veterans, we were able to accomplish what no other administration before has been able to do," said Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.
Council Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd (Jeddito, Cornfields, Ganado, Kin Dah Lichíí, Steamboat) commended the Navajo veterans and veteran organizations for their many years of dedicated involvement in the development of the legislation, which took decades to finalize among veterans organizations.
"This is not something the [Office of the President and Vice President] took on right away, I want to make that record known," he said. "This has been something that has been going on for years and years. Finally, we have come to a compromise and the veterans came together for this and brought something on their behalf. I want to put Navajo veterans on the forefront to say that, 'it's yours and you have done your job.' I want to make that known for the record."
The Act places the administration under the Office of the President and Vice President with the council's Health, Education and Human Services Committee serving as oversight authority. The Veterans Advisory Council will consist of 11 veteran members, 10 male and one female, from each Navajo agency - they will be identified as Agency Veteran Commanders.
The Veterans Administration will develop its own plan of operation, with the goal of becoming officially recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to advocate for funding and other benefits for Navajo veterans.
Legislation sponsor and Council Delegate Jonathan Hale (Oak Springs, St. Michaels) said the passing of the legislation acknowledges the hard work of the veterans and will aid them in providing much needed services.
"This legislation honors Navajo veterans and will provide services and funding from agencies to the Navajo Nation on behalf of veterans," he said. "Inclusive is the accountability measures that will be developed in the plan of operation to further clarify those measures."
The Office of the President and Vice President Veterans' liaison Jamescita Peshlakai conducted public meetings across the Navajo nation to provide veterans the opportunity to comment and make suggestions about creating the veteran's administration that would be beneficial to veterans. Peshlakai said the legislation passing is truly significant for all indigenous people as they have been protectors of their traditional homelands for centuries.
"This Act provides our veterans the opportunity to mold services and benefits with our culture, our traditions and our language for the purpose of taking care of our warriors who have returned from service," she said, adding that the Act is inclusive of all returning warriors - men, women, disabled or challenged. "It creates a family community that our suffering warriors can return to and be embraced in."
Nez said the administration had promised to get the Veterans Act approved. He acknowledged Peshlakai for her hard work within the administration.
"We commend her for her coordination of the public outreach meetings," Nez said. "To see the passing of the Veterans Act is a credit to both her efforts and the involvement of Navajo veterans."
Edsel Pete, department manager for the Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs, said the Act provides an opportunity for veterans to come to the table to help shape policy that affects their services and benefits.
"It's an opportunity to instill hope in veterans across the Navajo Nation," he said. "It's also an opportunity to create an interface of resources for veterans and services. We would like to thank the veterans for their involvement and support. The support of the Office of the President and Vice President was crucial as well."
Theresa Galvin, director of the Department of Behavioral Health Service, said beyond enhancing veterans services, the Veterans Administration will work toward meeting the critical demand of services for veterans, which have gone unfulfilled until now.
Begaye said a celebratory signing will mark the occasion because it is what the veterans deserve.
"This is just the beginning of our administration's commitment to fulfilling the objectives of our pillars - the top pillar being to serve our Navajo veterans," he said.