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Bethel veterans weigh in on cost of living, health care, and suicide rates during VA Secretary visit

More than a dozen veterans shared their concerns with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough and Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola during a listening session in Bethel on Feb. 23.

“They stressed the high cost of living here in Bethel or in the Y-K Delta,” said Bethel’s Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 10041 Commander Henry Hunter Sr. “Just to fly from Hooper Bay, I think it’s about $600 one-way. So it’s pretty expensive for those veterans.”

Peltola and McDonough answered their questions for nearly two hours. Veterans said that they were concerned about the lack of benefits and internet access, Alaska’s high cost of living, and their concerns about the U.S. being dragged into a war between Russia and Ukraine.

When it comes to veterans in rural Alaska, McDonough said that citizens from rural communities across the country serve at a higher rate than citizens living in urban or suburban areas. When those servicemembers separate or retire, they often return home to their small communities. Alaska Natives, in particular, serve at a high rate.

“I thought it was really important to come out here to Bethel and to see the particular life that our veterans here live. So that we are making sure that we’re getting care available to them, getting benefits that they’ve so earned and so richly deserve available to them in a reasonable way, not making them have to fly halfway across the biggest state in the union to get that done,” McDonough said.

One big issue that came up was the rate of veteran suicide. The most recent data available is from 2020, and one sobering metric is clear: more U.S. vets have died by suicide in the last 10 years than service members who died from combat in Vietnam. Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan is co-sponsoring a proposal for the VA to study the effects of medical cannabis on vets with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain.

“We want to make sure they take a hard look at whether there isn’t a way for us to get better access to research, the potential uses of cannabis for things like PTSD,” McDonough said.

Veterans in attendance and at large said that they don’t think the government is doing enough. McDonough said the VA’s clinical priority is to reduce and end veteran suicide. Recently, the VA invested $3 million into an app for Native veterans to reduce suicide. McDonough said that it connects veterans who are at risk or in crisis to care in their home communities.

"So this is precisely the kind of activity that we wanted to invest in to see if we can grow it so that other veterans in Alaska, and then other veterans across the country, can get access in a timely way to the care they deserve,” McDonough said.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.