News Releases

Murray Stands Up for Native American Veterans in Health Care Battle

Apr 12 2004

Senator Invites Tribal Representative to Testify at Field Hearing on Veterans Health Care;

Works to Ensure Native American Veterans from Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Yakama and Colville Tribes Don’t Lose Access to Care

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – As the federal Veterans Administration considers closing the Walla Walla VA Medical Center, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) today convened a field hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and heard testimony from Lindsey Watchman, a Persian Gulf veteran and representative of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

In February, a VA commission recommended closing the Walla Walla Medical Center, which serves the region’s 69,000 veterans, including many Native Americans. The hospital recognizes the needs of tribal patients and has a sweat lodge on campus.

"Mr. Watchman’s comments today gave us a clear picture of why this hospital is so important to Native American veterans and why we must fight the VA’s plan to shut it down," Murray said.

For the past nine months, Murray has been working to save the Walla Walla VA hospital. Today she brought a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to Walla Walla to take testimony from those affected.

Murray invited a tribal representative to speak so that the needs of the Native Americans veterans would be considered. Native American veterans from surrounding states travel to the Walla Walla VA for care.

In his testimony, Watchman said that access to quality health care is one of the biggest challenges facing the 190,000 Native American veterans in the country.

"Many Native Americans are raised on rural or remote reservations where access to quality health care options and medical plans is limited due to high cost of services," said Watchman. "Native American veterans understand that the best services are no good if you can’t get to them."

Watchman also stressed the importance of the Walla Walla facility to Native American veterans.

"This VA recognizes the special cultural experiences and sensitivities that we Native Americans bring with us, a holistic concept of healing and natural elements that support it. We have for us a sweat lodge at this facility that is not available to us at other VA facilities." Watchman said. "Native Americans from the Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Yakama, Colville, and tribes as far away as Montana and Alaska prefer to come to this facility to use the sweat as one way of curing our spirits."

Watchman told the story of Ira Hayes, a famous Native American veteran who helped raise the American flag on Iwo Jima, but who died after returning home because he did not have the care he needed.

"We cannot allow Native American veterans to suffer the way Ira did. We cannot allow any American veteran to suffer in that way," Watchman said.

Watchman noted that Native Americans join the military at the highest rate per capita of any ethnic group, and he called on people to join together to save the hospital.

"We are all relatives," Watchman said. "We are all part of the circle of life. We have the mutual responsibility to care for each other. Let us join together to build a brighter future for all veterans as they have joined together in the past to build our present and this great way of life. Please keep all services currently offered by this VA facility."

Murray said that she will continue to fight to keep the Walla Walla VA Medical Center open.

"I have real concerns about what’s going to happen going to happen to the veterans who rely on the Walla Walla VA today and about the veterans who will come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and need care," Murray said. "Our country made a promise to our veterans, and we’ve got to keep it."

Last year, Murray secured $28 million to go to Washington state tribal programs. She continues to work in the Senate on behalf on Washington’s Native Americans.



For more information on today’s hearing, see In Focus.

Senator Murray’s opening remarks at the hearing.

To receive Tribal Updates from Senator Murray, please sign up on her website.


Below is a copy of Lindsey Watchman’s testimony.

Statement by Lindsey Watchman
Executive Assistant to the Executive Director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation


"Good afternoon everyone. I want to thank the Honorable Senator Patty Murray for inviting me to speak before this most important hearing regarding the services of Jonathan M. Wainwright VA Medical Center here in Walla Walla.

It is a well known fact that Native Americans join the military at the highest rate per capita versus any other ethnic population even before we were awarded citizenship status and the right to vote. Native Americans have served with distinction in the United States military for more than 200 years. It is documented in every conflict that the indigenous people of this land participated. Today there are more than 190,000 Native American Veterans. We have a history of homeland security and clearly understand what can happen to the American way of life when that fails.

It is also a well known fact that Native American Veterans are the last of these ethnic groups to apply for well-deserved benefits and services. Mostly in part, because we were honored to protect our land, our way of life, and the rights and freedoms we have for others.

When we arrive at point in our life where we must ask for help to heal and preserve our health, we have come to rely on the motto of the Department of Veterans Affairs as stated on your web-site:

"To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan," it further states.

These words spoken by Abraham Lincoln during his Second Inaugural Address, reflect the philosophy and principles that guide VA in everything we do, and are the focus of our endeavors to serve our Nations Veterans and their families.

Many Native Americans are raised on rural or remote reservations where access to quality health care options and medical plans is limited due to high cost of services. Native American Veterans understand that the best services are no good if you can’t get to them. Ira Hayes, perhaps the most famous Native American veteran left Iwo Jima after raising the American Flag, unwounded and nine months later was a civilian again, leaving behind in a mass graveyard the best friends he ever had. Back home he found menial jobs on the reservation. He became a drifter, drank a lot, was in and out of jail and died in an abandoned hut on the reservations in January 1955. He was 32. We can only wonder at how different his life might have been had he gotten the help and healing his body and spirit needed.

We cannot allow Native American Veterans to suffer the way Ira did. We cannot allow ANY American veteran to suffer in that way.

This VA recognizes the special cultural experiences and sensitivities that we Native Americans bring with us, a holistic concept of healing and natural elements that support it. We have for us a sweat lodge at this facility that is not available to us at other VA facilities. Native Americans from the Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Yakama, Colville, and tribes as far away as Montana and Alaska prefer to come to this facility to use the sweat as one way of curing our spirits.

When we put on the uniforms of the Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, National Guard, and reserves, we become one and the same. A soldier, a warrior dedicated to carrying on the task given to us by our predecessors, our ancestors; to protect this land and our way of life, to secure the liberties of all human beings, including those in foreign lands, who become our neighbors in a global community. We do this because we are asked and we are honored.

We are all relatives. We are all part of the circle of life. We have the mutual responsibility to care for each other. Let us join together to build a brighter future for all veterans as they have joined together in the past to build our present and this great way of life. Please keep all services currently offered by this VA facility. Thank you."