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One Native veteran's new mission: Fill in the gaps of VA care on his reservation

Army Veteran and Fort Peck Tribal member, Jestin Dupree helps Native Veterans on the reservation get the medical help they need, “we live on an Indian reservation but our problems are the VA’s to fix, not IHS’s.”
Army Veteran and Fort Peck Tribal member, Jestin Dupree helps Native Veterans on the reservation get the medical help they need, “we live on an Indian reservation but our problems are the VA’s to fix, not IHS’s.”

POPLAR, Mont. — When Jestin Dupree got out of the Army in 2014 after 17 years, he was tired.

"I ended up doing five tours of duty overseas. I went to Bosnia in 2001, Afghanistan in 2003, Iraq in 2005, Iraq in 2007. And then [Iraq] again in 2010," he says, "My body was ... the 'check engine' light came on."

He moved home to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana, but things didn't calm down for him right away. He got on the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal Council there, and even went to Washington, D.C., to testify before the Senate about VA care for Native vets. He was invited to serve as one of 15 vets on the first-ever VA Secretary's Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs. That was around the time he realized that he'd been trying to help his people without taking the time to help himself.

"I guess I've been so busy ... getting out of the military diagnosed with PTSD myself, I haven't been able to seek care," he recalls.

And when he tried to get the care, he says, it wasn't easy.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the military at proportional rates higher than any other group, but they often have trouble accessing care because VA facilities are far away or backlogged. It took Dupree six months to get an appointment, he says, and when he did, the therapist wasn't a vet, he wasn't Native, and it didn't go well.

"My first time actually opening up with mental health. Being through these countries I've been through and being through these situations, a lot of my friends have killed themselves that I've deployed with," he says, "To hear a guy who's never been through what I've been through, tell me, you know, to me, it was like, he's brushing it off."

Studies show Native vets have higher incidence of PTSD — and Dupree says there's still a strong stigma around getting help with mental health. That first bad experience was enough to put him off.

"They had called me four days after, and I said, 'You know what? Do me a favor, lose my number. Don't ever call me again. I don't feel comfortable talking to you guys,' " he says.

What did make Dupree feel better was helping other veterans. He took a job with the tribal government checking on the vets who live all over the reservation, which stretches for 90 miles along U.S. Route 2 in northeastern Montana.

"Life's a little slower, but in turn, I enjoy going to meet these other veterans. A lot of 'em don't know the help that's available for them," says Dupree.

Some days Dupree is driving vets to their appointments at the VA in Billings, Mont., — about 10 hours round trip, and that's in the summer, when it's not snowing. Other days, he just makes his rounds, checking in on older vets who don't have cellphones or internet. And some vets he likes to visit because it's fun for him — like Kenneth Ryan, the former tribal chairman.

"You can't become a leader of your tribe until you've gone to war," Ryan said, explaining why Natives serve in such high numbers.

Ryan joined the Army in 1965, to be a paratrooper. Instead, the Army decided he was too good at typing and made him do clerical work. That was hard, because Ryan wasn't sure he was truly fulfilling the warrior tradition. But his elders told him he had.

"They called you and you went, you didn't say no. And you would've done anything they had you do," he says.

Veterans are honored at tribal ceremonies and celebrations — and Ryan says he was welcomed home with a song.

"Well they sang that song for me. So that's how I'm — I'm a veteran. And I'm one of the most privileged men in the whole world," Ryan says.

Jestin Dupree says helping veterans access their VA benefits and filling in the gaps in VA care on the reservation is his new mission.

"Like, if I wasn't doing anything today, I would go check on every single one of 'em," he says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.