The Gila River Indian Community is the second tribal veteran service organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. On July 19, 2023, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officially recognized the Gila River Indian Community as a tribal veteran service organization that meets the criteria and standards to be accredited under the Tribal Representation Expansion Program, to assist veterans with benefit and pension claims.
The Gila River Indian Community is the second tribal veteran service organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with the Navajo Nation Veterans Administration being recognized last year.
The Tribal Representation Expansion Program aims at expanding access to competent, qualified representation for Native American veterans. It also enhances representation for Native Americans while honoring tribal sovereignty by promoting avenues toward accreditation within tribal communities.
Department of Defense statistics show Native Americans serve in the military among the highest rates per capita compared to other ethnic groups. 2017 U.S. Census Bureau data show there are more than 140,000 living Native American veterans. Additionally, Native American veterans are more likely to have a service-connected disability than veterans of other races (30% to 23% respectively). Despite high rates of enlistment and service connection, a lower percentage of Native American veterans, 41.6%, used at least one VA benefit or service, compared to 52.7% of veterans of other races. This suggests many Native Veterans may not be aware of, or have access to, a wide variety of benefits and services available to all U.S. military veterans.
VA established the Tribal Representation Expansion Project to expand access to complete claims services for Native American veterans to ensure they are pursuing the benefits they are entitled to receive.
While in Arizona, VA Secretary Denis McDonough is visiting with tribal veterans, their families, and survivors to talk specifically about their benefits under the PACT Act. To date, VA has awarded almost $40 million to Arizona veterans and their survivors for claims filed under the PACT Act. There is no deadline to apply for PACT Act benefits, but there is urgency: if they apply for PACT Act-related benefits by August 9, their benefits may be backdated to August 10, 2022.