NPR reporter Quil Lawrence joined U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials on a recent trip into Arctic Alaska on a mission to find military veterans who never signed up for VA benefits -- or who didn't know they were due benefits. Tommy Sowers, VA assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, discovered at a community meeting in Wales that even the prospect of claiming cash and health benefits from the VA wasn't enough to get every village veteran to turn out for a meeting.
About a dozen veterans, family members and kids had turned out for the meeting, and Sowers introduced himself as a VA official and a former Green Beret with two tours in Iraq.
"How many here are veterans? Raise your hand if you're a veteran," he said.
But even that turns out to be a complicated question. Some of them were in the Alaska National Guard — and not all Guard members qualify for VA. Others asked what benefits they might be able to still get from an uncle or a father who has passed away — survivors' pensions pass to a spouse but not usually to older children.
Many say they've maybe filled out forms in the past but aren't sure they filled them in properly, or mailed them, or ever heard that the VA got the papers.
Read more, see photos, and listen to the audio report at NPR: Searching for veterans on Alaska's remote edges
Lawrence follows up with reports on the VA's use of telemedicine in treating Alaska veterans living in remote villages and on belated recognition by the federal government of Alaska Territorial Guard veterans who served in World War II.