Legion hosts Pacific Islander roundtable discussion
Solutions were devised to assist veterans living in Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas during a June 15 roundtable hosted by The American Legion in its Washington office.
Representatives from The American Legion, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Small Business Administration, Asian Pacific American Advocates and staff from the office of Rep. Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen, (R-Samoa), discussed efforts to improve access to benefits for veterans currently living in the Pacific Islands area.
Representatives from the Legion, VA , the Small Business Administration and Asian Pacific American Advocates and congressional staffers met in the Legion's Washington office to discuss efforts to help veterans currently living in the Pacific Islands area. (Photo by Andrea C. Dickerson)
Compared to the mainland United States, access to veteran benefits and services in that region are severely lacking. During the discussion, participants mapped out viable short-term and long-term solutions to help counteract major issues and created a roadmap for improving access to health care, employment, and entrepreneurial programs and services available to veterans and their families.
“These are men and women we served with,” said Joe Sharpe, director of the Legion’s Veterans Employment & Education Division. “When we do nothing to remove the barriers that bar them from accessing benefits that they have fought for, we are in essence giving them the message that their service does not equate to ours. Listening to the strife of our brothers and sisters in the Pacific Islands, traveling hundreds of miles over periods of days to obtain veterans services that we take for granted, is deeply upsetting.”
Collectively, the group recommended VA collaborate with American Samoa’s Lyndon B. Johnson Tropical Medical Center to improve the quality of care. The facility is currently deemed below VA standards. With improvements, the hospital could provide much needed assistance for veterans in a region with limited access to VA healthcare.
Currently, there are over 10,000 veterans living in Guam, America Samoa and the Northern Marianas combined. This does not include those serving in the Guard and reserve components or spouses eligible to take advantage of employment and entrepreneurial services.
Another recommendation included implementation of education, health and employment programs comparative to the level of treatment and services received in the United States and outlying territories, affording greater access to these integral benefits.
Radewagen has advocated for her veteran constituents. Since her appointment to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs (HVAC), she has urged federal agencies and veteran service organizations to pay attention to the unique challenges facing veterans living in the Pacific Islands.
“For far too long, our veterans in American Samoa have received inferior services and access to benefits, when compared to those in the States,” she said. “While I recognize the difficulties that our island’s geographic isolation places on the Department of Veterans Affairs in terms of satisfying their mission, it is high time that the VA addresses these issues so that those veterans in American Samoa receive the same level of services and access as their counterparts in the States.”
She said she remains optimistic that further discussion and awareness will lead to change. “After reaching out to VA Secretary (Bob) McDonald during a HVAC hearing, and receiving a positive response regarding the department’s willingness to address the issue, I am optimistic that we can resolve the disparity between the States and American Samoa in regards to veteran services,” she said.
The roundtable is one example of how the Legion evaluates and then redirects its advocacy resources to address discrepancies in veterans benefits and services.
"We need to know what works and what doesn't, and apply that knowledge to future campaigns that focus on stimulating the insular economies through small business thereby creating new jobs so that we can, in turn, secure those jobs for veterans,” Sharpe said. “We're the only veterans service organization that has led the charge in public discussion of issues specific to Pacific Island-based veterans and addressing what's really going on. We realize that the challenges on each island are unique to their geographies and that change cannot be made overnight. But we must open the public dialogue and attempt to be the change.”
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