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By 1st Lt. Balinda O'Neal
Representatives from the federal and state offices of veterans affairs collaborated with community partners to provide outreach services for veterans in Gambell and Nome, July 8 and 9.
From helping veterans to file claims for education, medical or other benefits to assisting them in obtaining earned military awards, these offices were there to serve Alaskans.
“It’s so important for us to come to them. It is proof that we value their service,” said Verdie Bowen, director of the state of Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs, who explained that many veterans in rural locations can’t come in to Anchorage to receive services.
Bowen said that his team assisted 22 veterans with claims in Nome and that veterans from surrounding communities as far as Little Diomede, located in the middle of the Bering Strait between Alaska mainland and Siberia, attended the outreach event.
“While we are here, we are also impacting people by establishing new relationships that will continue to build trust,” said Bowen, who affectionately referred to his team as the promise keepers. “Trust helps those who served to step out across the scary line and sign documents needed to receive those benefits that they have earned.”
Alaska has more than 67,000 veterans representing four generations across five major conflicts.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Rural Health sent their outreach team to Gambell, a St. Lawrence Island village located south of the Bering Strait and approximately 197 miles from Nome, where they served 52 veterans in the area.
The state team was not able to make it to Gambell due to heavy fog in the area but were able to assist with another project at the Belmont Point Cemetery in Nome.
“We were made aware of approximately 124 unmarked Alaska Territorial Guard graves and will continue to work with the local VFW to make sure the graves are marked,” said Bowen. “We have limited time in these locations and try to make every second count.”
Upon request, the federal VA furnishes at no charge a government headstone or marker for the unmarked grave of any deceased eligible veteran in any cemetery around the world, regardless of their date of death.
Bowen said that his team will begin requesting markers from the VA for the ATG members whose discharges are complete. At the same time, he will begin processing discharges for the remaining service members.
Each headstone weighs 174 lbs and must be shipped to Nome by barge. Bowen said that it’s extremely important to have these in a rural place like Nome to reassure veterans that they will be remembered.
“Every Memorial Day from the time you pass to the time we are no longer a nation, they will get a flag on their grave,” said Bowen. “It’s not a lot information on the headstone but enough to let people know that they served and are not forgotten.”