Opinion: The Biden administration has failed Alaska Native veterans

The trail of broken promises speaks for itself.

  • By Josh Revak
  • Tuesday, February 15, 2022 12:36pm
  • Opinion
State Sen. Josh Revak

By Josh Revak

Federal overreach has always impacted our way of life in Alaska. It is no secret that the federal government has been quick to lock up federal lands and slow to deliver on its promises. In a deeply troubling move last year, the Biden administration delayed a program that gives qualified Alaska Native Vietnam veterans the opportunity to select a plot of federal land in Alaska.

As you are reading this, 50 years after these veterans last had the opportunity to apply for their land, take a guess at how many of these applicants have been awarded land. If you guessed just a few, you’d be right.

The administration’s slow-walking of this promise is a slap in the face to our Alaska Native Veterans. It is completely unacceptable, and action is needed now. They have waited long enough — and they are dying.

I implore the administration to direct the Bureau of Land Management to be more expeditious in approving applications. Two land allotments is a disgraceful response to the service of these veterans and a violation of the sacred vow that was made to them half a century ago.

How we got here

During the Vietnam War, 2,800 Alaska Natives served in the military — a higher rate per capita than any other group. Since the conflict did not end until 1973, service members were unable to apply for land before the December 1971 deadline created by the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Alaska Native Veterans were finally given that opportunity once again under the 1998 Alaska Native Vietnam Veterans Land Allotment Act.

But 20 more years of delay ensued. Eligible veterans began passing away. In response, the Alaska congressional delegation worked to include provisions within the President Donald Trump-signed Dingell Act of 2019 to extend eligibility to qualified veterans and their heirs. These provisions also removed a five-year occupancy requirement — freeing applicants to apply for available lands anywhere in the state.

The understandably high hopes of Alaska Native Veterans were once again dashed, however, when the administration announced under Public Land Order 7899 that it once again delayed the program.

A trial of broken promises

As a veteran, I deeply appreciate the sacrifices and dedication required to serve our nation—all the more present in those who served during the Vietnam Era. Subjected to agent orange, numerous other toxins on the battlefield, and vilification upon their return, these veterans’ scars run uniquely deep. The continued disrespect shown to those who served honorably makes my heart ache and my blood boil.

Alaska Native veteran, Jerry Ward, shared his perspective with me recently.

“Many Alaska Natives who were in combat were unable to apply for an allotment. I was in the jungle in combat. I had no idea that the federal government was doing away with this. Thanks to our Congressional Delegation here in Alaska, this problem is being solved. The problem is that this process is outliving Alaska Natives. I can list half a dozen friends of mine who I served with that have now died.”

The trail of broken promises speaks for itself. But it is the stories of veterans like Jerry who motivate me to fight for solutions. How is it fair to tell these Alaskan Native Veterans to ‘pound sand’ after decades of waiting? It’s time to make these land allotments a priority.

Perhaps most frustratingly, the land that is currently allotted by the federal government, through the administration, is largely unusable, inaccessible land; on top of mountains of glacial land that is not native to those to whom it is allotted. This is not the treatment our veterans deserve.

As Alaskans and Americans, we owe these veterans far more than a debt of gratitude for the blood, sweat and tears they’ve given to this country. We owe them the land that was promised.

One of the many veterans I spoke with, Willard Jackson, shared his heart-wrenching story about the sacrifices made and the broken promises to follow by the federal government.

Jackson said, “Most Alaska Native Vietnam veterans are 70 or older, and we are the last living children of our grandparents to live on the land with them. When we went to Vietnam, we went voluntarily to fight for our country and our state. We gave our rights up and now we are back at the table fighting for them. This land is ours. It lives in our hearts”.

We owe it to Jackson and the other thousands of veterans across our state to honor their service to our country and to finally honor our promises.

There is still time to do what is right, but the clock is ticking.

Please join me in signing a petition to the Biden Administration asking them to keep their promise to our Alaska Native veterans. Email my office today to sign: Sen.Josh.Revak@akleg.gov.

• State Sen. Josh Revak is the Chairman of the Alaska Senate Resources Committee and serves South Anchorage in the Alaska State Legislature. 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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