Terry Bentley has been working for the United States Veteran’s Administration for nearly three decades.
She has the title to prove it - Tribal Government Relations Specialist, Western Region, for the VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations. The region covers Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, California and Alaska.
Bentley has worked at the VA for 27 years, including positions in Portland and Roseburg, Oregon. She was at the Pala Indian Reservation in early April, coordinating the Western Region Veterans Benefits Summit. The two-day summit at the Pala Casino Spa Resort included presentations on a wide range of issues, including Native American veterans’ access to health care, benefits, services and compensation. There were also group discussions on such difficult topics as the suicide rate among Indian veterans.
But the soft-spoken Bentley – a member of the Karuk Tribe of California – does not come across as a distant, office-bound government bureaucrat. She smiles broadly and often when she talks about her work. It’s clear she cares about Native American veterans.
“My father was a vet, my grandfather was a World War II vet – I grew up around vets,” Bentley said, smiling easily. “I love working with veterans – I love working for them. I’ve been able to witness some passionate testimony from the men and women who have served this nation.”
That testimony has come from men and women, those who have suffered physical wounds and those who endured psychological trauma, non-Natives and Native Americans. “To me a vet is a vet is a vet,” she declared. “I really don’t make a distinction between Native American vets and non-Native vets. They have all served our nation.”
Still, she acknowledged, over the years she has noticed there is something different about Native American vets.
“Native American vets are especially gracious, kind, very humble,” Bentley said. “They don’t really ask for much. They’ve served in such high numbers over the years but among all veterans they seek services the least. It should not be that way. Native American vets should seek VA services. They are entitled to any benefits they can get. They have sacrificed for their country.”
Bentley – who is married with five children - said Native Americans have historically served in the military in disproportionate numbers compared to the rest of America’s population.
Why is that?
“A tribal elder once explained it to me this way,” she said, clasping her hands together. “He told me, ‘We think of this country as our land, and we will always fight for our land – it has been ours from the beginning.’”
She also said the elder pointed out Native Americans have had a “warrior culture” for centuries. “He told me, ‘Before the white man came, there were tribal rivalries. Warriors came from many tribes, and they knew how to fight. There was honor in this warrior culture.’ That hasn’t changed.”
But that doesn’t mean Indians have much faith in the government to take care of them after they have served as warriors. Bentley acknowledged the dismal history of U.S. government treatment of Native Americans has caused some Indian vets to defer or even dismiss any help from the VA.
“There has been some hesitancy among some veterans to come to the VA,” she admitted. “Some of it is the history. Some of it is the Native American culture. We take care of ourselves and then we look to our families to take care of us. So a lot of Native Americans may not look to the VA for anything. But the VA is making an effort to reach out to Native Americans – we are establishing a different culture.”
Which is one of the reasons the veteran’s summit was held on the Pala Indian Reservation, Bentley said. “It’s important for the VA to come into Indian Country to help Native American vets. We need to reach out to rural Indians.”
It’s important, she said, because many Native American vets – especially those who live on reservations – are usually far from any VA medical facilities.
“Most of our facilities are in urban locations,” Bentley noted. “If you’re an Indian vet living on the reservation, you’ve got to go to the city and it’s quite a distance to travel. No vet should feel forgotten.”
Bentley said even though she’s worked for the VA for many years, she doesn’t intend to slow down in her efforts to reach out to Native American veterans. “I hope to connect Native American veterans with other veterans (and) connect all of them to the right people at the VA,” she said. “Once we do that, vets can begin to get access to health care and other services and eventually some form of compensation. Veterans need to know they can’t lose hope.”
Bentley hasn’t – even after nearly 30 years.
“If I can help even a handful of Indian veterans gain access to services and benefits they didn’t have before, or didn’t even know existed, then I would consider that a great success,” she declared.
Bentley said this with a determination born of experience that comes from years of listening to all those who have served their country with honor, courage –and as warriors.