There is a credo lamented daily in the waiting rooms of the Veterans Administration Hospitals scattered across America. It goes, “First you apply, then they deny and hope you will die.” This has a special meaning to Native American veterans.
For too many Indian veterans it strikes close to the bone. They are so entangled in bureaucratic red tape they are all but suffocating. Many have been reduced to living lives well below the poverty level set by the very government they fought for and nearly died defending.
Several months ago I wrote about one such veteran named Andres Torres, an Oglala Lakota, living in Rapid City. What has happened to this veteran since then?
“I was told to open a new claim called Unemployability which means I have not been able to work since the second operation they performed on me at Fort Meade VA Hospital in 1989. I filed the claim in February and I have not heard from the VA since. As far as I know it is still sitting on somebody’s desk in Sioux Falls or Washington, D. C.,” Torres said.
Torres said that since I wrote about his plight in 2009 he got a call from Governor Mike Rounds (R-SD) and was told that his office was interested in helping him and other veterans in similar situations.
Torres was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2005. “There are just too many Native American veterans falling through the cracks for it to be a coincidence because I see them every week at the VA Hospital and they all tell me to keep fighting because it may end up helping them,” he said.
“I took the article you wrote in the Native Sun News to the offices of Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), John Thune (R-SD) and Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) and either they are unable to help or they don’t care,” Torres said.
Most of the problems Torres is now facing began in 1989 when he had a knee operation at the Fort Meade Veterans Hospital in South Dakota. The operation was botched according to Torres and he has not been able to work since then. He was scraping by on Social Security and his wife of 40 years, Rosie, was working at the Mother Butler Center part time to supplement his Social Security income. But, after a gallant fight against cancer, Rosie died earlier this year not only leaving a hole in his life, but also taking away a portion of the income that kept them afloat.
His stroke of bad luck began when he was serving with the South Dakota National Guard after his Army service. He was working as a journeyman electrician at different construction sites around South Dakota when he fell from a ladder badly injuring his leg. He was within one year of completing his 20 years of service that would have given him a pension. The National Guard refused to let him finish up that last year and so after serving for 19 years he was drummed out of the Guard and lost any chance of getting a pension. The injury also led him to Fort Meade for the operation that nearly crippled him.
Former Army Sergeant Andres “Buzzy” Torres has been fighting the VA for 21 years. Several times he has thrown his hands in the air ready to give up the fight, but fellow veterans like former Green Beret Sgt., Sam DeCory, and a highly decorated Lakota now deceased, told him to keep fighting because a lot of the Lakota veterans were counting on him to put their fight with the VA on the map. Indian veterans are much more likely to be turned down for benefits than non-Indians in South Dakota. They know it, but it seems to be a well-kept secret to the Veterans Administration.
“I am so proud to have served my country in the regular United States Army and in the South Dakota National Guard and no one can take that away from me, but sometimes I am so ashamed of the Veteran’s Administration for what they have done to me and to thousands of my fellow veterans,” Torres said in my office last week.
Sitting with his hands in his lap and his head down, Torres said, “Losing Rosie has just about taken all of the fight out of me and I don’t think I can carry on this battle with the VA much longer, but even though I lost her and I am about to lose all of the things Rosie and I built over 40 years of marriage, I just have to keep on if not for me, at least for the other Native American veterans that are going through this with me.”
Does the S.D. VA discriminate against Indians? It is well-documented and our elected officials should at least check it out.