ROCKY BOY — The Rocky Boy Veterans Memorial Park is just a stone's throw from the Great Plains Veterans Services Office, which in just a short time has expanded its services to help veterans not just in this area, but a huge portion of the state. Their services aren't just limited to Native American veterans.
“So with a small start in 2015, we are now to where we are currently five offices serving 17 counties on three Native American Indian reservations,” said Chauncey Parker, a Montana Army National Guard Veteran and the GPVSC’s executive director and co-founder.
“We are fortunate as an organization to be helping not just Native American veterans, but rural Montana veterans as well,” said Parker.
The center began as the Rocky Boy Veterans Center.
While working under a grant for tribal business owners, organizers discovered veterans faced a lot of underlying issues.
With help from the local American Legion Post they are now able to provide transportation services along with direct assistance services under the Veterans’ Support Services, or VSS, program.
Through the Department of Veterans Affairs Highly Rural Transportation Grant, they were able to expand and now have the main office along with branches in Browning, Scobey, Fort Belknap and Big Timber, serving a 17-county area.
“My first first full year, 2021, we covered 36,000 miles for the whole year. In 2022, we covered 120,000 miles for the whole year. So far, actually, as of today, we've covered 44,000 miles,” said GPVSC Transportation Manager and Air Force Veteran Tom Lewis.
Last year the organization received the VA's Staff Seargent Fox Suicide Prevention grant.
“That program is allowing us to assist Native American veterans dealing with some of those mental health issues, providing them with quality of life needs all with the objective of preventing suicide,” said Parker.
The extensive growth hasn’t been without challenges.
“Even with our transportation, we're expanding quicker than expected,” said GPVSC Administrative Manager and Army veteran John Gardipee, Sr. “But it's getting the people to apply with the COVID and everything.”
But it also comes with rewards.
Last year, the center went through a rebranding to help marketing efforts. Spearheading the charge was Communications Specialist Becky Lewis. While non-profits face obstacles, the longtime Air Force wife says they’re greatly outweighed by the benefits like when a veteran can obtain employment.
“To see a veteran come in and go through that program, get to the other side and watch them flourish, its a beautiful thing,” said Lewis. “It's an honor to bear witness to it honestly.”
One man who was helped is Navy Veteran Coby Stump. Once homeless, he now helps raise money for the center by helping to man the non-profits food truck.
“The VSS program and Veterans Inc. and Volunteers of America, they both they all helped me get a place to stay,” said Stump who grew up in Rocky Boy but is an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Reservation. “They helped me get everything I need for the house. Everything's going good right now.”
“I really like the idea of us helping our veterans, because in native culture, it's very important to honor our veterans,” said GPVSC Case Manager and National Guard Veteran John Gardipee, Jr. “Unfortunately, I've been noticing, as well as some of our elderly veterans are noticing it's kind of disappearing, our warrior society.”
Chauncey Parker says the reception from veterans is positive.
“We've had a number of veterans come and let us know if it wasn't for us, you know, they wouldn't be making their appointments,” said Parker. “They wouldn't have, you know, some of the benefits that the that they need.”
Parker says the program serves as a good example of veterans helping veterans.
"Regardless of if you are Native American or not, we are going to be there to help you because you are a veteran," said Parker. "And I think, you know, we need to see a lot more of that."
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