Darren Ripley, left, a veterans services coordinator for Wabanaki Public Health & Wellness, with Eugene Loring Jr., a former Army Ranger. Courtesy of Darren Ripley

Darren “Moose” Ripley won’t soon forget the satisfaction he felt after working for nearly nine months last year with a veteran from the Penobscot Nation to get him connected to all of the benefits he was entitled to for injuries from his service.

“He was getting some of his benefits already, but it took such a long time because of scheduling, and talking to officials, and attending meetings, he was ready to give up,” said Ripley, a veterans services coordinator with Wabanaki Public Health & Wellness. “We walked through it with him, and it was a success. But that help isn’t something people in tribal communities have had a resource for.”

Ripley, a veteran who grew up in the Passamaquoddy community and is the third generation of his family to receive a Purple Heart, is one of several links in a network that’s developed organically over the last five years between Wabanaki Public Health & Wellness, the Wabanaki nonprofit Nibezun, the Veterans Benefits Administration and Health Administration at Togus, and the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services. Together, they’re bringing crucial services to the veterans of Maine’s tribal communities. And in the process, they will serve as a model for similar efforts across the country this November.

Maine is home to more than 500 Wabanaki veterans, and the Wabanaki have served in every branch of the U.S. military and in every war since the Revolutionary War. And yet, for multiple reasons, they often don’t get access to the veteran’s benefits they’ve earned.

“Maine is such a rural state, and tribal communities aren’t always close to many of the veterans resources they need to access,” said Sarah Sherman, the director of strategic partnerships at the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services. Though she has been instrumental to the partnership’s genesis, she credits Ripley, Lauren Stevens with Wabanaki Public Health & Wellness and Selena Neptune-Bear of Nibezun with helping to bridge the longstanding issues of cultural division and mistrust.

“Darren and Selena’s introductions to the tribal communities have helped us build trust that allows us to have a more direct relationship and deliver services,” said Robert McCann, government and community relations specialist at the VA Maine Healthcare System. A veteran himself, he works with all of the other partners to bring what he calls “a one-stop shop” of services directly to the tribal communities – all of them working together to organize on-site events where veterans are able to do things like file claims, get help finding employment, get access to veteran home loans, and file for education benefits and for monthly compensation benefits for illnesses.


“For all of their questions, there are people to help them,” Ripley said. “We’re getting the outreach done.”

Meanwhile, the coalition’s efforts are getting recognized, to the delight of partners like Sherman.

“We’ve been asked by Gregorio Kishketon (a program analyst for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and a Tribal Elder with the Water Clan-Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma) to present virtually on Nov. 1 about our group’s work in Maine with the Wabanaki communities,” she said during an interview in October. The coalition also planned to be at the Pentagon in person on Nov. 8 for the VA’s Native American Heritage Month celebration.

Stevens, with Wabanaki Public Health & Wellness, sang at the Nov. 1 event.

“The goal at the Pentagon is to model what we’re doing here in Maine for other areas of the country,” said Michael Brawn, an Air Force veteran and the assistant director of Veterans Benefits Administration at Togus. “There’s been a synergy between the groups that’s incredible.”

Selena Neptune-Bear of the Wabanaki nonprofit Nibezun has put together a cookbook she planned to share during a ceremony at the Pentagon this month.  Courtesy of Nibezun

And the impact of that synergy, according to all involved, has gone beyond the practical and extended into the personal realm. In fact, the most robust sign-up events have taken on an air of cultural – if not spiritual – exchange. “They’ve taken the time to share their culture with us,” McCann said, “including a smoke-smudging ceremony and a cleansing blessing that have been very extremely powerful.”


“One of the ways we heal is through our culture,” said Neptune-Bear, who was the force behind putting together a Wabanaki Cookbook for the tribal communities. “Food and seed sharing are important to us.” To that end, the group was bringing copies of the cookbook to the Pentagon to share.

“As I understand Selena’s program at Nibezun, its focus is whole health,” McCann said. “And the VA in general has transitioned toward a whole-health model, so the two work very well together.”

Neptune-Bear may have been a step ahead of that pivot, but she welcome it nonetheless.

“Whole health is crucial to our relationship,” she said. “They’re seeing another way of healing for veterans. We view our culture as medicine and prevention for things veterans deal with.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Robert McCann’s name.

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