Filed Under:

Searching For Veterans On Alaska's Remote Edges

Play associated audio

When he was in Vietnam, Isaac Oxereok's small build made him ideal for tunnel-ratting: running with a pistol and a flashlight into underground passages built by the Viet Cong. In 1967 he finished his tour with the Army and came home to Wales, Alaska. Oxereok knew he wasn't quite right, but there wasn't anyone around to tell him how to get help.

"Post traumatic syndrome?" he said. "I went through that I guess, mostly on my own. Some wounds never really show. So inside was kinda messed up."

Now Oxereok is 69 years old and living at the edge of the Bering Strait in a village of about 150 people. On a recent clear day the Russian mainland peeked on the horizon over just 50 miles of broken spring ice. Oxereok snowmobiled over to the community center when he heard that someone from the Department of Veterans Affairs was visiting. He had no idea when benefits he might be owed.

"The fact that Isaac doesn't know about this? That's why we're here," said Dr. Tommy Sowers, assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs.

Sowers visited Alaska recently to look at what challenges rural veterans face in getting benefits, but it turns out that just finding them can be a challenge.

Twenty-two million Americans served in the military, but the vast majority are from the Vietnam and Korea generations. They're getting older now, and many live in rural, sometimes remote areas. Alaska has the highest number of veterans per capita in the country — native Alaskans and other vets who got posted up here and never left.

"Once you get Alaska in your blood it's hard to get it out," says Ron Huffman, originally from Virginia, now living in Nome.

The Air Force sent Huffman here in 1963, then he met a local woman and got married. He and his wife still return to her tiny village each summer, where they fish enough salmon to last through the winter. He volunteers as a tribal veterans representative — a liaison between the VA and local veterans.

"Most of these vets they've never applied for any type of entitlement whatsoever," Huffman said. "And a lot of 'em are at the age now that they're suffering with some pretty severe type ailments. It would be very beneficial for them to try to get connected with" the VA.

But getting connected up here isn't easy. And though it would seem pretty basic, the VA has no master list of who served. That means someone has to go find them, a point demonstrated by the delegation from Washington, D.C.

"We live in a country where people get to choose where they want to live," Sowers said. "And you know, once they raise their hand, volunteer and serve, we've got that obligation"

Sowers and other officials flew from Anchorage to Nome and then on a one-prop plane up to a snowy runway in Wales. The local veterans' representative, Sean Komonaseak met the visitors at the plane on his snowmobile, wearing a parka fringed with polar bear fur. Komenaseak allows that the town is pretty small.

"On a good day about 150 people. As far as government organizations there's hardly any representation," he said. Komonaseak had advertised a meeting for the many veterans and their family members, including a free lunch with fresh fruit and whale meat.

By mid-afternoon about a dozen veterans, family members and kids turned out for the meeting, and Sowers introduced himself as a VA official and a former Green Beret with two tours to Iraq.

"How many here are veterans? Raise your hand if you're a veteran," he asked.

But even that turns out to be a complicated question. Some of them were in the Alaska National Guard — not all guard qualify for VA. Others asked what benefits they might be able to still get from an uncle or a father who's passed away — survivors' pensions pass to a spouse, but not usually to older children.

Many say they've maybe filled out forms in the past but aren't sure they filled them in properly, or mailed them, or ever heard that the VA got the papers. Sowers knows the VA is battling a reputation for red tape and backlog.

"Now, the process is not a quick process .... But the clock starts the moment we get that form in," he said.

And Sowers knows he's only adding to the backlog by bringing these veterans in from the cold, but that's his job. The country owes these veterans, he said, whether it's a home loan, or health care, or a pension.

But even after traveling 4,000 miles to the opposite edge of the continent, it turns out some of the vets in town don't want to be found.

"Alaska has the highest proportion of veterans that serve," Sowers said. "And in these tribal communities they have an incredibly high percent of folks that served. But even here in a town of 152 people, when we had a veterans gathering, not all of the veterans showed."

A couple of hours in to the meeting people are starting to get restless. Sowers has registered a few vets and asked folks to go out and tell the other veterans in town to get in touch.

"I asked people here can we get email addresses," he said. "They wisely told me not all have email. Our task is to reach out, but in the time, the tone, and the medium the veteran prefers."

A few questions focus on the final benefit for veterans, which is in demand these days as vets get older: a government-issued headstone. Turns out some of the families in Wales haven't been able to get the heavy markers delivered because they have no street address. The director of the VA for the state, Verdie Bowen, tells them to just put down any address on the form and he'll make sure the headstone arrives.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit


No Meekness Here: Meet Rosa Parks, 'Lifelong Freedom Fighter'

As the 60th anniversary of the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott approaches, author Jeanne Theoharis says it's time to let go of the image of Rosa Parks as an unassuming accidental activist.

Internet Food Culture Gives Rise To New 'Eatymology'

Internet food culture has brought us new words for nearly every gastronomical condition. The author of "Eatymology," parodist Josh Friedland, discusses "brogurt" with NPR's Rachel Martin.
WAMU 88.5

World Leaders Meet For The UN Climate Change Summit In Paris

World leaders meet for the UN climate change summit in Paris to discuss plans for reducing carbon emissions. What's at stake for the talks, and prospects for a major agreement.


What Is Li-Fi And When Will You Use It To Download Everything Faster?

Li-Fi is a lot like Wi-Fi, but it uses light to transmit data. NPR's Scott Simon speaks to the man who invented the faster alternative: Harald Haas.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.