Marvin Trujillo Jr., a member of Laguna Pueblo, can relate to American veterans who are shocked by the realities of civilian life after discharge. “The first thing I had a problem with was finding a job,” he says.
He recognizes, of course, that there are only so many jobs in aircraft maintenance, but with a bachelor’s degree in communications from Old Dominion University, seven years of service in the U.S. Navy as an aviation electronics technician, and another five years in the U.S. Marine Corps as an officer supervising aircraft maintenance, one would think he could find something.
The job he eventually got was as the director of the Veteran’s Program at the Pueblo of Laguna. He developed the program between 2008 and 2014, establishing procedures for veterans and their families to apply for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Today, roughly a decade since his discharge, Trujillo wears a lot of hats. He is the second Lieutenant Governor for the Pueblo of Laguna. He is the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., a committee on which he has served since 2011. He also is the chairman of the Board of Directors for the Southwest Native American Veterans Association in Albuquerque, a position he assumed in 2015.
“Our biggest mission is to ensure veterans get access to benefits and health care,” he says. One hurdle veterans discover is that three entities handle veterans’ benefits, not one.
The benefits administration of the VA is at 500 Gold SE in Albuquerque. Veterans’ Health Administration is at the main medical center off Gibson in Albuquerque, and the National Cemetery is in Santa Fe. Trujillo says the different branches of military service are doing a better job of preparing vets for re-entry into civilian life, but many vets have the mistaken idea that if they register with the VA in downtown Albuquerque they don’t have to go any further.
A benefit that is increasingly important to veterans in the Albuquerque area is the Freedom Pass, a free lifetime pass to ride the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, made available by the Rio Metro Regional Transit District. Trujillo uses the Rail Runner regularly for meetings in Santa Fe.
Obtaining the Freedom Pass requires a veteran to have a VA medical card, available from the Raymond G. Murphy Medical Center, 1501 San Pedro Dr. SE, Building 41 in Albuquerque. Call the medical center at (505) 265-1711 if you need more information or directions. The Freedom Pass itself is available Monday-Friday at the New Mexico Rail Runner Express customer service office and other locations in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Los Lunas.
“The pass is important to veterans because transportation is one of the areas where they need help,” Trujillo says. He says the relationship between Native Americans and the Rail Runner will be strengthened in the future as more veterans learn about the services the Rio Metro Regional Transit District provides.
Other problem areas facing veterans include education about obtaining the benefits they earned and technology. Like many government agencies, the VA is increasingly based on smart phones and computers, and phones can be a challenge for older veterans and in rural areas – this describes many Pueblos and other tribal lands – which often do not have good broadband access to the web.
Trujillo addresses these issues through his committee appointment and Southwest Native American Veterans Association, but educating individual veterans is better achieved through annual conferences or summits. These big events have been held at larger facilities like the National Guard Armory in Albuquerque, Isleta Casino, and Buffalo Thunder north of Santa Fe.
“The first year we had 500 to 600 participants for the conference at Isleta Casino,” Trujillo says, “and the second year we met at the National Guard Armory in Albuquerque and had 450 to 500.”
During the coming year, Trujillo and the board of the Southwest Native American Veterans Association hope to take their services directly to the Pueblos and other tribes in the Southwest. Meetings closer to home, they believe, will help veterans fully understand how to apply for and receive benefits from the VA, the state, and the New Mexico Rail Runner Express. Veterans with web access should visit swnava.org to learn about upcoming events.
Native Americans have a very high rate of service to the nation. Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, wrote in 2015 that the 2010 national census revealed 150,000 American Indian and Native Alaskan veterans.
“Native Americans feel an obligation to protect their homeland,” Marvin Trujillo says. His father was a Marine, and Marvin was actually born at Camp Pendleton, the Marines’ major West Coast training base in California.
As a Marine officer, Trujillo learned that the service men come first, and officers second. In his current positions, he continues to live by that credo, helping his men get the benefits they earned.
Story by Martin Frentzel