Project Foot, an non-profit organization whose mission is “to strengthen military families and assist homeless and unemployed veterans,” by providing housing, food, communication and travel assistance and employment services, has recently released a Veterans Bill of Rights on their website in an effort to gain more rights and benefits for Veterans and their families from the Veterans Administration. Their efforts have generated criticism from American Indian Veterans.
According to the site, “American military personnel and their families have offered their lives to defend our nation and its way of life. As such, there are certain rights that our society must afford to them to ensure that their service does not hinder a fair chance at the American dream.”
The Veterans Bill of Rights then goes on to list a series of requests that the Project Foot Administrators believe are owed to Veterans and Families. The list of rights include such issues as respect to all veterans regardless of age, gender, branch of service, disability, military rank, sexual orientation, gender identity, location, mental illness, substance abuse status, incarceration status or type of discharge.
Other requested rights are right to information of benefits, integration training, accessibility to health care, treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress, preventative measures to avoid homelessness, education for children of veterans and specialty services for all incarcerated veterans.
Jeff Estep, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is the President of Heritage Global Solutions, a provider of Information Technology (IT) Consulting. As a Marine veteran, Estep says he is a bit lukewarm to the requests of Project Foot, but said their heart was in the right place.
Estep was particularly critical of the Bill of Right’s requests in terms of the type of discharge as mentioned in item No. 1 which stated, “All who are eligible, or may be eligible, for any military or veterans benefits should be treated with the utmost in respect and dignity at all times regardless of age, gender, branch of service, disability, military rank, sexual orientation, gender identity, location, mental illness, substance abuse status, incarceration status or type of discharge.”
“If you are kicked out of the military, and I will say this because I am harsh, if your discharge is less than honorable, you ruined your contract with the government,” Estep said.
Clark Brown, Delaware Indian, and a former helicopter pilot of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Airborne—also known as the Nightstalkers, agrees with Estep.
“I disagree that the ‘type of discharge’ should have no bearing on rights. If an individual is unable to adjust to military life and display the discipline necessary to maintain such then he should not be afforded veterans benefits. That is not to say they should be abandoned but rather directed to a civilian facility for treatment of physical or emotional distress after discharge. If one receives a ‘dishonorable’ discharge, No other benefits should be allowed,” Brown said.
Brown also weighed in on the request to full rights to incarcerated veterans as mentioned in item No. 9, which states, “incarcerated veterans should remain eligible for and should be afforded any medical, mental health, or substance abuse treatments to which they would otherwise be entitled.”
“After reading the proposed Veterans Bill of Rights, ‘I agree with most but take exception to allowing the reinstatement of rights pertaining to incarcerated veterans,” Brown said. “I believe this must go deeper into the reasons of incarceration. If a felony has been committed by a veteran and he is subsequently incarcerated for the same then he should permanently lose his rights to any veteran benefits.”
Estep also weighed in on the Veterans Bill of Rights approach to Veteran homelessness and accessibility to VA healthcare, particularly to Native veterans.
“I don’t think the government should be giving away money for free, but I want to help the downtrodden. As a Marine veteran, I have noticed many homes sitting vacant on military bases. They could be used to help people get back on their feet and to make a viable transition away from homelessness.”
Estep said families could live in the homes as long as they contributed to their surrounding community and could participate in vocational training programs.
In terms of Healthcare for veterans, Estep admitted this could be a difficult situation for Native service members that returned to reservations and found themselves far removed from a VA hospital.
“First of all, we need to share the message that there is a tribal responsibility to take care of our tribal members. The VA at one time used to pay for travel and mileage to the VA for healthcare if the service member was 50 miles away or more. If this isn’t feasible, we definitely need to have basic healthcare services or traveling clinics,” Estep said. “It’s hard to measure success.”
Estep stressed there should never be a handout. “I don’t consider myself a victim and I am a firm believer of taking care of yourself. I worked hard; I went to night school, and the military helped pay for college. But in my opinion, I didn’t feel the military owed me a thing when I got out.”
Though several attempts were made to obtain comments from Project Foot and the Veteran’s Administration, there were no responses offered at the time of the article going to print.