‘It’s a win-win’
Thu, 04/20/2017 - 12:26pm admin
National Guard partners with Housing Authority to provide homes to 16 veterans
By Andrew Turck / Big Horn County News
A sleek UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter touched down in Crow Agency early last Thursday afternoon, dropping off U.S. Air Force soldiers in the middle of a field. The soldiers – all members of the National Guard – then moved to a concrete slab, where fellow airmen briefed them on plans for a new construction project.
If everything goes according to schedule, 16 more houses will be available for Crow tribal veterans by the end of August. Once built or renovated, these residences will be within walking distance of Apsaalooke Warrior Apartment Complex, constructed in September 2015 and currently housing 15 veterans.
Mitchell Sisco, master sergeant for the 138th Civil Engineering Squadron, is working with other Air Force groups to build a house on each of the two concrete slabs, complete construction on four existing homes and renovate 10 more. Soldiers involved will gain carpentry experience as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training program.
“We partner with local communities and nonprofit organizations to go out and get good, real world, realistic training,” Sisco said. “It’s a win-win. We provide the manpower and equipment, you guys provide the materials.”
According to Sisco, the project began in 2015 through an application submitted by Crow CEO Paul Little Light who, at the time, was serving as the tribe’s Veterans Affairs director. In writing the application for IRT, Little Light collaborated with American Indian wellness organization Walking Shield Inc.
The $250,000 in materials necessary for the project was funded through the Crow Tribal Housing Authority, who had room in their budget for the expense. The National Guard and Housing Authority originally met in November 2016 and seemed to have matters under control.
Then, according to Housing Authority employee Jessica Old Elk, tribal contacts began leaving due to layoffs in December 2016 as former Chairman Darrin Old Coyote’s administration transitioned to Chairman A.J. Not Afraid’s administration. Soon, she found herself the main connection between the tribe and IRT, headed by Capt. Miles Shepard.
“Basically, it fell into my lap,” Old Elk said. “The Housing Authority went through a few interim executive directors, so I re-explained the program a few times.”
The current Executive Director Marie Cuny, Old Elk said, “jumped on the idea,” and located and secured the necessary funding with guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. By the beginning of March, Old Elk contacted Shepard and they set the schedule.
When the project finishes, CEO Little Light – himself a veteran of the U.S. Army in Bosnia – will have helped provide 32 homes for tribal veterans. In addition to the current project, the VA and Housing Authority secured tax credits for the Warrior Apartment Complex through Montana Board of Housing. The VA also obtained a direct loan to get a house for Crow Vice Secretary Shawn Backbone, a U.S. Army veteran.
Tribal veterans often struggle readjusting to daily life, Little Light said, partially because they have less of a connection defending their country than they would defending their tribe.
Little Light served in the Army from 1995-98 where, while manning a guard tower in the mountains, a fueling accident caused an explosion and left him with third degree burns. He needed to be transported by ambulance during a blizzard, and required a month’s hospitalization. Consequently, Little Light identifies with veterans coming back from a traumatic experience.
He wants to help them eventually make the adjustment from wounded soldiers to tribal leaders.
“It would be nice to see veterans step up and take a lead in the community as warriors,” Little Light said. “Back in the day, we used to watch out for our camp, we used to maintain it, we used to be security, we used to be somebody to look up to. I think we still are.”
The National Guard is set to present their work on July 26, Capt. Shepard said, as part of what they’ll call their “media day” or “distinguished visitors day.”