Special Report: Outreach on the last frontier

The distance from Craig to Juneau is only about 200 miles. But this is Alaska. Veterans who make the trek to the VA outpatient clinic in the state capital commonly have to plan for five days of travel. The largest town on Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska, Craig is home to about 100 veterans who use VA for health care. 

The journey can be made by driving across the island to catch a ferry to Ketchikan on the mainland – or a float plane that makes two trips a day, weather permitting – where another plane can be taken to Juneau.  That’s the fast way. A more scenic route, using the Ketchikan-Juneau Ferry, takes a veteran along the Alaska Marine Highway System to his or her VA appointment.

Either way, the trip isn’t easy, and the distance between veterans and their VA facilities creates more than a logistical barrier. Many don’t realize the benefits they are eligible to receive. One Vietnam War veteran who served in the artillery, for instance, had no idea VA could help him get hearing aids. Most veterans think the benefits application process, and the difficulty of getting to Juneau for services, is simply too much of a hassle.

That’s where American Legion department service officer Jim Pisa enters the picture. Pisa served in the Navy from 1970 to 1974 and in the Coast Guard from 1976 to 1997.  Now that he’s retired from the service, he travels more than 40,000 miles a year on trips of two to four days, explaining VA benefits to veterans across the massive state and helping them get through the application process.

“If you took the state of Alaska and placed it on top of the lower 48, you would notice that the southeast panhandle cities of Ketchikan, Juneau, Prince of Wales, would be located in the southern states of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, and it would go as far north as Minnesota and the Canada border and east to west pretty much Atlantic to Pacific,” Pisa says. “Basically I travel the (same area in distance as) the lower 48.”

Veterans in Craig don’t understand why the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has a clinic on the island, but VA care is as far away as Juneau. “There’s a Bureau of Indian Affairs clinic 100 feet from my house,” one veteran complained.  “That’s the federal government. Why the hell can’t I just walk down there and save myself four days of planes and boats?”

VA and BIA recently signed a memorandum of understanding to explore how such a partnership would work in making 15 Alaska tribal health programs available to treat veterans. 

“Coming from rural Alaska didn’t keep thousands of Alaskans from serving their country, and Alaska’s veterans community should not be kept from the medical care they need because of geography,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, says. “From my first day in the U.S. Senate, ensuring that veterans are not disenfranchised from their earned VA benefits by reason of geography has been a core priority ... Local care for rural Alaska veterans does not mean care in Anchorage. It means care close to home when it is available.”

Fifteen locations across a state as large as Alaska, however, won’t take much pressure off the service officer. As long as Alaska keeps attracting veterans – at 17 percent, it has the highest per-capita veteran population in the country – Pisa will keep flying, island to mainland and back again, to tell them about the benefits they’ve earned and how to access them, no matter how hard it is to get to a VA doctor.