VFSO assisting veterans and families in GRIC

October 19, 2018


Aaron J. Tohtsoni

Gila River Indian News


The Veterans and Family Services Office (VFSO), the newest department of the Gila River Indian Community, has been making strides in changing the lives of veterans and their families since its inception a year ago.


Established out of the veteran planning committee created by Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis in 2016, the main goal of the department is to provide veterans and their families with information and assistance in securing their entitled benefits. 


One of the most important things the VFSO stresses and assists veterans with is obtaining their DD 214, the certificate of release or discharge from active duty, issued by the United States Department of Defense.


Wesley Rhodes, veterans peer support specialist, said the DD 214 is “like gold” for a veteran. The form is a verified record of military service and used by various government agencies such as the Department of Veteran Affairs to secure benefits. 


Rhodes said that obtaining the form can be challenging and difficult because of the paperwork involved in the process. Whenever a new referral comes in the office, the first goal of the VFSO is to help with that process, if needed.


Rhodes, Marine veteran, and Darrell Whitman, Army veteran, are the only employees in the department but are assisted by nine AmeriCorp volunteers, who are called resource navigators, that work in the field.  Resource navigators are made up of veterans and military family members who serve one-year terms dedicated to helping other veterans and military family members.


Just a few ways that the VFSO is making a stride for veterans is hosting roundtable discussion throughout the Community and doing wellness checks, offering a friendly ear to any veterans who just appreciate the visit. A survey found that Community veterans felt isolated and their goal is to change that feeling.


The roundtable discussions evolved from a simple coffee club. Veterans from every district convene on these discussions, giving them a chance to talk with other veterans and learn about new resources.


“I like them a lot,” said veteran Lynn Dixon of the discussions. “I leave them so energized. The Community needs to understand that our freedom comes at a price. If it’s not remembered, then the younger generation is going to forget what men and women did and what it took to keep that freedom. It can’t be forgotten; with the veteran services, it helps get the word out.”


A new initiative that the VFSO is tackling has been visiting and assisting veterans who are at the Caring House in Sacaton. They helped facilitate with the instillation of a flag pole in the courtyard, something that resident Sherwin “Jake” Murrieta had requested. Murrieta, a veteran, is responsible for raising and lowering the flag each day. 


“Feels good knowing I did my job,” said Murrieta of the flag responsibility. “A lot of the old veterans were wondering why there wasn’t [a flag] here for them. They still have honor; they may be old but they still have honor and you can’t take that away from them.”


He also said that the veterans like to sit outside in the courtyard and reminisce about their days of service. He said they are extremely appreciative of the little act of getting them a flag at the Caring House, stating, “I thank them for everything. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have nothing.”


Another undertaking that the department is proud in assisting family members with the procurement of military headstones. Assisting families with this can be complicated with the deceased veteran sometimes not having their DD 214, which is needed. The VFSO helps the family with the paperwork so that they are able to request the headstones. They also help find local resources that can help install the new headstones in the cemetery.


As reported earlier in the year, the VFSO is also assisting the Huhugam Heritage Center with their new interactive veteran’s exhibit. The new exhibit will feature first-hand accounts from veterans, as well as family member’s accounts of their service. They will also have a chance to display memorabilia like documents, helmets and other personal items. 


Whitman said the challenging part of the exhibit, “Preserving Our Time,” is finding veterans who are open to telling their stories and wanting to be recognized. With regular wellness checks and building relationships, the VFSO feels they are creating a trusting bridge with veterans who are slowly opening up about their time in service.


While the office is still new, they are always self-evaluating looking for ways to become more efficient. They also welcome feedback from veterans so that they can make sure they are serving them effectively and meeting their needs.


“If the office wants to exist and we want the office to exist then we need to do our part,” said Dixon, of taking advantage of all of the resources that the VFSO offers for veterans and their families. 


For more information, regarding the Veterans and Family Affairs Office and services they provide contact (520) 562-6221.