The Partnership Between VVA and the Seminole Tribe of Florida

About three years ago, VVA’s Florida State Council undertook an effort to help the veterans of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and their families.

These veterans have fought in every war in which Americans have been involved—sometimes with, sometimes against. The Seminoles have a long warrior tradition, which extends to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As VVA chief service officer, my office is located some 165 miles from the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Brighton Reservation, which includes the veterans building for tribal members who served in the military. My initial visits were very intimidating, as I knew very little about Seminole culture or about the veterans themselves. They had an enormous mistrust of the U.S. government, and of the VA in particular.

It took nearly 10 months to break the ice, and I am proud of the cooperation between VVA and the Seminole Tribe of Florida now.

One success story was that of Seminole veteran Joe Lester John, who had served in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force as a survival team leader for aircrew members. While reworking his claim for Type 2 diabetes and ischemic heart disease before the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), John asked me about a claim for his 32-year-old daughter. She had been born with Spina bifida, a result of his exposure to Agent Orange, and had been denied benefits.

Together we developed the case again. I then traveled to the regional office in Denver to argue that it was an error by the VBA.

Two weeks later, I received a phone call explaining that the original determination was in error, and the grant of level III Spina bifida would be retroactive to 2010. We filed a notice of disagreement on the date of benefits, feeling it should be retroactive to the date that a claim for this child was filed in 2000.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Health Plan will be reimbursed nearly $1.34 million for the care they provided John’s daughter. Just prior to the decision, John passed away.

Another Seminole veteran success story was that of Charlie Steel Gopher.

Gopher served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. He had enlisted in the Army and decided he wanted to join the elite Airborne. He enlisted for a three-year tour of duty and served with valor in two of the fiercest battles of the war.

Gopher continued to serve with distinction, completed his tour and returned home. The Army asked that he immediately be discharged so he could re-enlist for six more years. Unfortunately, the demons of war compounded by alcohol and race relations prevalent in the military during the 1960s, got the best of Gopher when he took his own life nearly 37 years ago.

The VA (today the Department of Veterans Affairs) denied his family’s request for burial benefits. It stated that because Gopher did not serve out his original enlistment of three years he should not have the honors of a military funeral and was a dishonorable veteran.

After reopening his case, the VA finally granted his family the burial honors Gopher deserved. Last Veteran’s Day, the Seminole Tribe once again celebrated the life of this brave warrior. The brigade commander from the 1st Battalion of the 12th Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Air Mobile presented Gopher’s family and the tribal veterans the awards and honors Gopher never received.

With the help of VVA’s Florida State Council, the Veterans Council of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Americans Serving Veterans Foundation, we have enrolled all veterans and the employees of the Seminole Tribe of Florida in the VBA system. To date we have recovered more than $5 million (not including the $1.34 million Spina bifida award) for our Seminole veterans who fought in Vietnam.

A strong and vibrant partnership has developed between VVA and the Seminole Tribe.

By Marc McCabe

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