Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough tasked his agency’s new Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs with helping the VA take more innovative approaches to serving Native American veterans.

The newly created panel, one of 27 VA advisory committees, met for the first time on Tuesday to advise the VA on everything from COVID-19 efforts to homelessness among American Indians and Alaskan Native veterans. Its 15 members are Native American veterans, each from different tribal nations.

“My commitment to you was and is clear, that VA will not make decisions about you without you,” said McDonough.

He also outlined his goals for the advisory group. “The work of this committee will be essential in helping us to find and to develop better and more innovative ways to serve native veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors,” he said.

Jack Austin, an Army veteran and the Assistant Chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, serves as the advisory panel’s chairman.

“I believe this is a great opportunity for our native veterans’ voices to be brought to the table with hope of solutions for the real struggles they face today,” he said.

Veteran benefits, native cemeteries and health care services for rural and urban communities are among the issues being discussed during this week’s session.

Over 140,000 Native Americans veterans currently receive their health care through the VA but have faced significant challenges receiving care during the pandemic, something McDonough charged the committee with helping to resolve.

“There are many hard truths that need to be addressed, and I will be here for my people addressing those truths on their behalf,” said committee member Reyn Kaupiko, a Navy veteran and Native Hawaiian.

The new advisory committee was created by Congress in 2020 and members were officially appointed to their roles in October. Although committee recommendations are not binding, other VA advisory committees have had more than 90 percent of their suggestions accepted, according to Jeffrey Moragne, director of the VA Advisory Committee Management Office.

In addition, the VA’s existing Office of Tribal Government Relations serves veterans who are members of tribal nations.

The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said the new committee has an important role to play.

“Native Americans serve our nation in uniform at the highest rates, and it’s critical these veterans are well represented at VA and empowered to shape department policy to meet the needs of all Native veterans,” said Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and former chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Sen. Jerry Moran, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called the committee “an enduring forum to learn more from these veterans and tribal leaders on how VA and Congress can best serve this veteran population.”

The committee meeting will continue through Thursday.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Sen. Jon Tester.

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