Alaska Native Veterans Association: Building bridges between villages and veterans services

Published: Nov. 9, 2023 at 4:10 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - After getting into trouble with the law at 18 years old, Inupiaq U.S. Army Veteran Benno Cleveland faced a decision that shaped the rest of his life: jail time, or military service.

“So I opted to go into the military,” Cleveland told Newscenter Fairbanks in a Nov. 7 interview.

Now president of Alaska Native Veterans Association, his choice to serve has impacted the lives of many others, especially veterans in rural Alaska.

The road to where he is now wasn’t always smooth.

When Fairbanks-born Cleveland returned from Vietnam in 1970 with an eye damaged by shrapnel and a bad right leg, he didn’t find the welcome very warm, nor the help easy to come by.

“There wasn’t that much for services here in Fairbanks or in Anchorage … just little offices,” he said, adding, “and especially there were no services for veterans out in the bush area, the villages. Nothing, whatsoever.”

Cleveland went on to explain other roadblocks, saying he could typically reach Veteran’s Affairs (VA) only by phone or mail, describing the accompanying paperwork as “hellacious.”

The hurdles he faced weren’t only external. Dealing with PTSD and other physical and mental traces of war, Cleveland shared how the first years back in Alaska were dotted with internal hurdles, as well.

“I stayed pretty well messed up. I stayed functional: I worked, had marriages, divorces, had kids, but I drank and drugged for nearly 18 years,” he said.

Change did come, however, and Cleveland described his journey toward healing as one flanked and guided by connecting with his Native traditions.

“As I was going through AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), there were Native Elders coming my way who were teaching about our traditional ways, our spiritual ways, our ceremonies,” he said, “and that’s how I started to grow and become wiser and stronger and more involved with the veterans and even with my community.”

At that point the need for better support for veterans became apparent to Cleveland and others, including well-known elder Richard Frank, the first president of Alaska Native Veterans Association. One experience, Cleveland explained, drove that point home.

“Federal and State VA personnel had invited veterans to meet in Minto,” he said, but a bout of warm weather struck, and the attendant icy roads pushed the officials to cancel.

Yet many of the veterans who planned to go did not know. They still made the treacherous trip, only to discover the cancellation upon arrival. “And I saw the disappointment, and the anger and tears, in the veterans’ and their wives’ eyes,” he recalled.

That moment set Cleveland and others on their way to forming Alaska Native Veterans Association, which focuses primarily on connecting veterans in the villages with services and support.

“So a bunch of us, we came together, maybe three years prior to becoming a nonprofit organization,” he said, “and we talked and talked, and the more we talked, we decided that we’ll apply for a 501(c)3 veterans nonprofit organization.”

The organization started with Frank at the helm, earning nonprofit designation in 2000.

Fast forward 23 years, and the association is preparing for their annual meeting Nov. 18, one week after Veterans Day, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at JP Jones Community Center located at 2400 Rickert Street. Cleveland said of the meeting, he hopes to see the younger crowd filling up seats. “A lot of us now, we’re getting older and we’re starting to follow our elders, so we’re trying to bring in younger veterans,” he said.

A 2020 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs found Alaska Natives and American Indians (AN/AI) served in the military at a significantly higher rate (17.7 percent) than the average rate for other races (14 percent) pre-9/11. The same report also showed that, though more likely to have a service-connected disability, AN/AI veterans use VA services at a lower rate than other races.

Building access to those services, then, remains the focus for Cleveland and the association.

“We continue to keep the spotlight on Native veterans. and all veterans, but mainly those who are having a hard time out in the villages,” he said.

Cleveland was sure to point out that membership is open to veterans of all cultures, and the association strives to serve the veteran community in a variety of ways whenever called upon.