It’s not easy being a veteran in the Navajo Nation.
Bernadine Tyler, an Army veteran who was raised on the Shiprock reservation in New Mexico, knows the reality of the “great barriers” plaguing Navajo warriors all too well.
It’s why she’s stepped in to help over 14,000 Native American veterans living on 27,413 square miles across three states. Tyler is the program lead for the Diné Naazbaa Partnership, which works to improve veterans’ quality of life. Diné Naazbaa translates to “Navajo warrior.”
“We have veterans facing loneliness and isolation that live in desolate areas, which makes it hard to connect with them,” Tyler told USA TODAY.
Cellphone service is scarce in rural areas, Tyler said, and lack of electricity and running water hinder the staples of daily life such as storing refrigerated food.
They also deal with increasing poverty, substance abuse, transportation issues and mental illness, according to Tyler. Studies have shown that suicide is a rising problem among Native American veterans.
“It’s tough,” Tyler said.
After serving active duty for five years and in the Army Reserves for three years, she started the Diné Naazbaa Partnership to better understand and address the needs of struggling Navajo veterans.
America’s Warrior Partnership, focused on preventing veteran suicides, serves as the Diné Naazbaa Partnership’s parent organization.
“Community is the real key to helping veterans,” Tyler said. “It’s amazing to see us unite in ways that we can give back to them – whether it’s chopping wood for them, transporting them to meetings where they can apply for assistance, taking them to the medical appointments at VA facilities, running errands for them or buying their groceries.”
Connecting veterans to needed support
Extending across New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, the Navajo Nation is the country’s largest reservation – but it’s also one of the least supported in terms of infrastructure, according to the DNP.
The Navajo people serve their nation at a higher rate than any other demographic in the U.S. but don’t return home to the same access to resources other U.S. veterans might have, according to Jim Lorraine, president and CEO of America’s Warrior Partnership.
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“It’s important to recognize that culturally, there’s a difference between Native communities and non-Native communities,” Lorraine told USA TODAY. “Unless you’re from that culture, I think it’s difficult to grasp it.”
As part of the Navajo culture, he said Tyler uses that connection to reach veterans, educate them and advocate on their behalf.
“America’s Warrior Partnership’s role is to support Bernie,” said Lorraine, who served 22 years in the U.S. Air Force as a flight nurse and deputy command surgeon for the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Tyler estimates over a third of the Navajo people, including veterans and their families, live without power, paved roads, housing and other essentials of modern life.
Four steps to improved quality of life
As part of a two-woman team – DNP’s case coordinator works with her from Arizona –Tyler meets the veterans where they are, whether it’s local trucker meetings, conferences, food drives and community events.
It’s Tyler’s responsibility to initiate DNP’s four-step plan to help veterans: connect, educate, advocate and collaborate.
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The first step of connecting uses a “one-size-fits approach” for each person’s situation since each veteran is unique, Tyler said.
“We focus on just that person, and once a strong connection is made and that assistance is rendered, then we move on to the next warrior,” she said.
Educators teach veterans about the services the DNP assists with as well as other organizations that also serve veterans. The third step of advocating focuses on speaking for the veterans who may not speak English or who may encounter language barriers, according to Tyler.
Collaborating, the last step, involves partnering with other organizations seeking to assist veterans, she said.
“This step has allowed me to meet an endless network of people,” Tyler said. “Getting out there, meeting the different partners and meeting individual veterans is always the highlight of our program. It’s what we do on a daily basis.”