Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

54th Annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention (Virtual)
Washington, DC
October 16, 2020

I’m Robert Wilkie, Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Alaska Territorial Guard Day is Sunday, and Veterans Day is fast approaching. So I want to speak directly to Alaska Native Veterans.

Native Americans serve in the military in greater numbers than any other group, and it is because of your sacrifices that all Americans sleep soundly at night. I’m inspired by your bravery, by your warrior tradition, and by the proud legacy of your forebears, the heroic Alaska Territorial Guard and the Eskimo Scouts.

Thank you for your courageous service.

Back in 2018, I made my first official address as secretary to the Alaska Federation of Natives. Now, two years later, it is my honor to be with you again, joining tribal elders watching from across the state and, indeed, around the world.

On behalf of VA, I affirm to you once again that we are committed to honoring tribal sovereignty, committed to consulting with tribes before we make decisions that affect tribal governments and your citizens. For VA, tribal consultation is about more than just listening. It’s about sitting together, candid conversations, and collaborating on policies affecting your country. It is what this convention is about: “Good Government, Alaskans Decide.”

And speaking of good government, there are none better than my dear friends Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Alaska’s champion Don Young – all devoted to Alaska’s Veterans. Because of their work and President Trump’s support, if you are an eligible Alaska Native Veteran of the Vietnam-era or an heir, you get another five-year window to apply for up to 160 acres of federal land in Alaska. And the new program eliminates prior restrictions, so even if even you’ve moved to the Lower 48, you may still be eligible.

If you have not already heard from the Department of Interior, reach out to your Bureau of Indian Affairs Realty Tribal Service Provider. It’s important eligible Alaska Native Veterans from Vietnam everywhere use this tremendous benefit.

It’s also important that you all know about the great changes taking place at your VA. In just three years, VA has undergone the most transformation since the end of World War II, and all of it is to improve our service to Veterans and their families.

The MISSION Act is giving millions of Veterans access to care in their communities, and we will soon expand our Caregiver Program to include the Vietnam Veterans of my father’s generation.

The Harry Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, or Forever GI Bill, expanded benefits for Post-9/11 Veterans.

We’re bringing the electronic health record online. In Alaska, you can expect to see the new electronic health record next fall thanks to the help of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and providers at the Alaska Native Medical Center.

We’re maintaining and enhancing Alaska tribal health program’s reimbursement agreements, because they are vitally important to your VA healthcare access.

And we’ve launched a nationwide effort to end Veteran suicide. And that is our top clinical priority. Tragically, Alaska Veterans die by suicide at a rate higher than their fellow Veterans in the Lower 48, and at more than twice the national rate.

But we can change that. The President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide, PREVENTS, is helping connect Veterans in crisis to mental health services, whether that’s with the VA or other resources. And from the Aleutian Chain to Prudhoe Bay, from Nome to Eagle Village, Alaska’s nearly 400 Tribal Veteran Representatives have a vital role connecting Veterans to mental health resources.

We have to work together on this. Preventing Veteran suicide is a mission-critical task for all of us. We cannot fail nor forsake our Veterans on this.

That’s the same promise God make to Joshua. It’s the same promise General Matthew Ridgway relied on the night before launching the airborne liberation of Europe in World War II. We will neither fail nor forsake you. And it’s VA’s promise to Alaska Native Veterans and all of Alaska’s Veterans.

President Kitka and Co-Chairs Ana Hoffman and Will Mayo, thank you for inviting me, and God bless.