For Navajo Veterans, Another Broken Promise

The Navajo Nation promised its veterans housing to thank them for their service. But many are still struggling to live in substandard conditions. The Los Angeles Times' Cindy Carcamo explains.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now we'd like to talk about a promise made to some of this nation's most decorated veterans. You might have heard about the Navajo code talkers and how they, speaking in their traditional language of Dine, helped transmit messages that enemy troops could not decipher. These veterans, along with those from other and more recent wars, were promised that their basic needs, especially for decent housing, would be met. But for many, that has not happened. To learn more, we're joined by Cindy Carcamo of the Los Angeles Times. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

CINDY CARCAMO: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: You reported on veterans who are living on the Navajo reservation, which is the largest reservation in the United States, by the way. It covers more than 27,000 square miles in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. How many people are we talking about? And what are some of the conditions in which you found them living?

CARCAMO: Yes. We're talking about 9,000 - about, nearly 9,000 military veterans that live on the reservation. And the reservation straddles, you know, New Mexico and the Arizona border. And a lot of these veterans are living in situations that I think you and I would find pretty shocking. They are, you know, they're living without electricity, without proper plumbing. One of the veterans that I spoke with is living in a home that's been struck by lightning, which is really taboo in Navajo culture.

You're not supposed to be living in a structure that's been struck by lightning. The floor is peeling. At one point - although that did get fixed - there was a septic tank that was leaking. So various conditions, but this is also indicative of housing conditions throughout the Navajo reservation in general, too. I mean, they have told me that there is a housing crisis on the reservation.

MARTIN: Why is that?

CARCAMO: Well, the reason is because, from what I've been told, there isn't much employment on the reservation as well, and nearby the reservation, these are like rural areas. Some of these homes that were built were not built to what you and I would consider up to code, and were built in very rural areas where you can't really get electricity or water up there. So a lot of it comes down to that as well. There just isn't very good planning from what I can tell. And they make no qualms about it. Like I said, they say that it's a crisis situation on the Navajo reservation when it comes so housing.

MARTIN: So more broadly, you're saying that there are serious questions or serious issues around housing conditions on the Navajo reservation in general.

CARCAMO: Yes.

MARTIN: But you're saying that there was a specific promise that...

CARCAMO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...To thank veterans for their service, that they way would be better housed.

CARCAMO: Yes.

MARTIN: How - who made that promise?

CARCAMO: That promise was made by the Navajo Council back in the 1980's actually or even before then. And in connection with that promise is a $6 million trust that they started ,a trust fund for Navajo veterans that specifically is supposed to help with housing conditions, either building new homes or helping them with materials to fix their homes. And due to a variety of factors - from mismanagement of funds to the downturn in the economy, funding hasn't really been available to them to be able to build more homes.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. What do tribal leaders say when you point out that this was a promise made to these veterans and it isn't being kept? What did they say? Do they deny that there was such a promise or do they say something else?

CARCAMO: No. No. They don't deny it at all. They actually told me that they were happy that I was writing the story because they have made this promise to the veterans, but they're saying that, you know, they have tried to get more funding, and they've even tried to lobby U.S. Congress, and it falls on deaf ears, you know. That's what the spokesman for the Navajo Council president told me.

But then I spoke with other Navajo veteran's officials who gave me more of the history behind it as well, who told me that, you know, there was a period under other administrations where there was mismanagement of the funds. So it seems like it's been very much a problem-plagued fund, and because of that, they're kind of in the situation that they are in now. Although, they have - this new administration has promised to build 75 homes this year.

MARTIN: You mean the leadership of the Navajo Nation. What - those who argue that - I don't see this in your piece. I do see in your piece that you interviewed a spokesperson for the president of the Navajo Nation, Ben Shelly, who says that - who knowledge's that this is a crisis, and that this is a not a situation that they're proud of. But for those who say that they're lobbying for more funds, I mean, the Veterans Administration does not provide housing...

CARCAMO: No they don't.

MARTIN: ...For non-Navajo veterans or non-Indian, correct?

CARCAMO: Yep. Correct.

MARTIN: So what is the logic under which they should provide monies for this fund to fulfill a promise that they did not make and do not...

CARCAMO: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Fulfill for others?

CARCAMO: Well, their logic is that they haven't been able to get enough funding through their own means, and so they think, you know, the Navajo veterans, you know, provided a great service to the United States, especially the code talkers, and that Congressmen up in, you know, D.C. should basically be able to kind of give some more money for the fund.

MARTIN: So what's been - you said - you indicated that some, actually - some tribal leaders are actually happy that you brought some attention to the situation. What's the status of this now? Now that this is getting renewed attention, is there any hope of addressing it anytime soon?

CARCAMO: Yeah. Well, the response has been actually pretty interesting. Well, they were going to address the situation even before I wrote the piece, you know, the 75 new homes. Although, like I said, that's a drop in the bucket. But just readers, people who - I've gotten many, many e-mails from readers who have actually tried to actually even start raising money for some of these veterans. Someone started a GoFundMe account.

So it seems like there definitely is an outcry. I think people are very much taken aback about the living conditions of some of these veterans and are trying to help in some way. So that's what I have seen. As to having heard anything from the Navajo Council, I haven't heard anything from them. I do know, however, Etta Arviso, who is one of the advocates who's tried to help the code talkers specifically, she told me that someone from, I think it was -someone from - she said - all she said was that someone from D.C. was planning on visiting the Nation to talk about the situation.

MARTIN: I'm curious about whether there was any reaction to this being a broken promise among the tribal leaders with whom you spoke. I mean, given that so much of the narrative of the relationship between, you know, native peoples and the U.S. government is a relationship of promises made that are not kept. And I'm wondering if there's any embarrassment about that?

CARCAMO: Yeah. Well, there is some sort of embarrassment, but I think that that the tribal leaders that I spoke with just kind of see it as we've done as much as we can, and there just simply isn't enough money. And so we're just going to do the best we can to fulfill that promise. So it just kind of seems like - the logic that I'm hearing or from what I'm hearing is, like, we're doing the best we can to fulfill this promise, but there are a lot of things are out of our hands that we really - you know, we're just doing the best we can. That's what I'm hearing from them.

MARTIN: Cindy Carcamo is a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. And she joined us from her home office, which is in Tucson, Arizona. Cindy, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CARCAMO: Thank you.

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