I thought I understood everything about being a veteran for many years.
After all, my father served 31 years with the Army Air Corps and the United States Air Force, through three wars and finished as an e-9. Not to mention my eight years as a Marine – Semper Fi.
I had a military ID for the first 30 years of my life – I was military made you could say.
The two of us contributed to being among the largest ethnic group serving in the United States Military on a per capita basis, along with many other members of my family.
However, I have since found how little I really understand about our benefits; and the impact active duty has on our family, our friends, and us. Additionally, as I mature (code word for old guy), I realize that our military service is part of our lives forever.
Indian Country Today Media Network and I recognized a need to help individuals involved in the military lifestyle understand items that will have an affect on their lives. Veterans Sit-Rep aims to promote a flow of information that may be beneficial and important for veterans, as well as family and friends (they are stuck dealing with us).
We cannot expect the government to hold our hand and guide us after we leave the military. In fact, the only area I expect government assistance is with VA benefits. The challenge for us has been the immense amount of information that is out there and how do we navigate this massive bureaucracy to find programs that help the veteran at a personal level?
Hopefully these columns will be able to assist in sifting through the programs in search of the information that can be of use for you and your families.
We need to look out for each other and we need to educate our families to nudge our veterans to take advantage of everything that is available to us. I know that many of us leave the military with mixed emotions and occasionally with a bitter taste. However, I believe that we need to build on our experiences and make the most of the programs available to us – education, health care, employment, etc. – all topics that will be covered.
Additionally, I will address the role of our tribes in supporting enrolled members that are veterans and their families. I am very proud of the fact that my tribe, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has created a Veteran Service Officer for our tribal members.
As a youngster, I had several heroes, my parents, Ira Hayes, Billy Mills and as an adult, our tribal chief, Greg Pyle. Also, I am pleased that I was able to meet former Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Chairman Richard Milanovich, who helped usher in a new age of wealth and political muscle for many Native Americans through the expansion of tribal casinos in California. Milanovich joined the Army at 17, later returning to Los Angeles, where, among other things, he sold vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias door to door. He first joined the Agua Caliente Band tribal council at age 35.
Richard passed away March 11, 2012 and his tribe, Indian country and the nation lost a great man.
At RES 2010, following being honored as Native American business leader of the year, he stepped into a veteran session that I was hosting for the SBA office of Indian Affairs.
I asked if he would mind saying a few words to the room of Native veteran business owners? And for the next 15 minutes he explained what it was like to grow up in the Palm Springs area as a Native American. He then began to discuss that his time in the Army was the most important experience in his life and attributed his personal and professional success to his military service. The audience was momentarily stunned as was I. I found myself pleasantly surprised at how important the military was to this honorable man and veteran. So much so that he was willing to talk about it off the cuff.
As I listened to the Chairman, I was reminded how so many of us have started our careers/lives with the military experience. The beauty of the Military is that Veterans represent all walks of life, cultures, socio-economic groups. The downside is that the Military takes almost anyone, including the racists, bigots, ignorant and narrow-minded citizens that make up part of the fabric of the United States. However, the Chairman, and I, found that the Military forced us to work with this cross section of Americans in support of a mission and to look past all of the differences. I think it is incumbent on us to look at that experience and take from it those life lessons and help shape our careers post-military.
In the late ’60s, while serving in his third war, I cherished the letters my father wrote me from Vietnam. I know those snail mail letters were a lifeline for my mother, my siblings and for me. To this day I’m amazed at the counsel he was able to provide a senior in high school in a handwritten letter.
At the end of every letter, my father would sign off with, “That’s 30 for today.” I often meant to ask him exactly what the phrase meant, but that chance has come and gone. He and my mother are buried at Arlington National Cemetery and I can only guess.
I think that was the time he allocated for his counsel that day and with that being said,
That’s 30 for today.
Jeff Estep is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He has a B.S. from Oklahoma University and a M.B.A from Pepperdine University. He served in the USMC from 1971-1980. He was a CH-53 Pilot and his last tour was with 1st ANGLICO. Jeff is the owner of Heritage Global Solutions (a technology services company). He is married and has three children and three grandchildren. He is active on the board of the Native American Veterans Association, the California Disabled Veteran Business Alliance and the Southern California Minority Business Development Council.