Opinion: It’s time to correct a Vietnam-era injustice

“We have the power to make this right.”

This photo shows George Bennett Sr. shortly after arriving in Vietnam in 1967. Bennett served in the 2/12th Infantry 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division and was assigned to Dau Tieng Base Camp. (Courtesy Photo)

This photo shows George Bennett Sr. shortly after arriving in Vietnam in 1967. Bennett served in the 2/12th Infantry 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division and was assigned to Dau Tieng Base Camp. (Courtesy Photo)

By Mike Dunleavy and Dan Sullivan

In the years leading up to 1971, the federal government urged Alaska Native families to claim their 160-acre land allotment before the program was abruptly terminated by the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That message never reached George Bennett Sr. Like 2,800 other Alaska Natives, he was serving his country on the battlefields of Vietnam.

Last month, President Joe Biden significantly curtailed the most promising effort in decades to correct this travesty. His administration imposed a two-year stay in the implementation of several public land orders in Alaska that would’ve lifted restrictions on 28 million acres of federal land. This decision means thousands of Alaska Native veterans and their surviving families are unable to receive land allotments in these areas under the 2019 Dingell Act.

Working in our individual capacities as U.S. senator and governor of Alaska, we’re committed to correcting this affront to our heroes. First, Senator Sullivan will continue to fight for timely implementation of the Dingell Act, which included a version of Senator Sullivan’s Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment Equity Act. There’s no excuse for the Biden administration to specifically target these patriots by delaying land selections that were due a half-century ago.

[Gov proposes land exchange for Vietnam-era Alaska Native veterans]

Second, Governor Dunleavy will be amending the “Unlocking Alaska” land bill with a proposal that offers our Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans state land in exchange for their future federal allotments. Not only will this amendment offer an immediate solution to a decades-old problem, it will open up more land selections closer to home for many veterans.

Let’s be clear, if it was up to us, there would be little to no restrictions on land selections. By complementing the federal law, this amendment will bring us closer to that goal.

The bottom line is that our Vietnam-era veterans deserve better. As soldiers, they carried with them both the physical and mental scars of war – a burden many bear to this day. Instead of providing comfort and gratitude, some across our nation treated them as villains. Years later, President Reagan would call it a “noble war,” but even today, Vietnam veterans don’t always receive the respect they deserve despite suffering 58,000 in-theater deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries.

Their wounds were uniquely brutal. Agent Orange and dioxin – known at the time to be “exceptionally toxic” – didn’t discriminate between friend, foe, or civilian. Others returned with mental wounds that haunted them for years. Yet instead of receiving care, they were forced to trade the battlefields of Vietnam for the battlefields of Congress.

Those drafted were largely from the middle and lower classes, while over half of wealthy young men obtained student deferments. Alaska Natives, however, didn’t seek to defer. They didn’t burn their draft cards. In fact, the majority of these patriotic Americans volunteered to fight heroically for their country and have faced more than 50 years of injustice since.

Perhaps most frustratingly, the land withdrawals needed to facilitate these federal allotments were put up for review in 2004 by the Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act. Now, President Biden claims more years of deliberation are needed. Only in Washington, D.C., is 17 years an insufficient period to conduct an “accelerated” review.

Not only have our veterans been exceptionally patient, they’ve contributed so much to our country in the intervening decades. George Bennett returned to Southeast Alaska in 1998 and took up traditional Tlingit carving. As a veteran’s advocate, he is known to offer his services to Sitka’s veterans seven days a week. “Veteran’s don’t stop being veterans after 40 hours,” he loves to say. His story is like so many other Vietnam veterans — men and women whose service to our country didn’t end when they left the battlefield.

But time is running out. After this latest delay, some veterans have said that they believe their best hope is to include their unfulfilled land allotment in their will. They hope this will give their families some legal standing should a future administration finally right this wrong. No veteran — Alaska Native or otherwise — should be treated in this manner.

We have the power to make this right. Let’s give our Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans the land they’re owed and honor their legacy of service before it’s too late.

• Mike Dunleavy is the 12th governor of Alaska. Dan Sullivan is a U.S. senator representing the state of Alaska and a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. . Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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