William Smith and his brother both served in Vietnam, his brother a few years before him.
Smith's brother died of Agent Orange exposure, lying in a hospital bed, fighting to breathe until the end.
The coronavirus pandemic has left Smith reliving his brother's last moments.
"When I look at this COVID-19 going on, I see my brother lying in that bed in the hospital," he said. "They weren't able to get him healthy enough to transfer to Seattle, so I just watched him pass away with a tube in his throat just gasping for every breath."
For Smith, 67, chief of the Valdez Native Tribe, his brother's fate stands as a stark reminder of the risk to veterans that the coronavirus poses, especially in the remote areas of the nation's largest state, where many are increasingly isolated and cut off from help. Smith is vice chairman of the Alaska Native Health Board and serves as vice-chairman and Alaska-area representative for the National Indian Health Board.
Native American and Native Alaskan veterans struggling to access adequate health care is not a new problem. It's a continuous battle, Smith said, and the Department of Veterans Affairs resources they do have were facing a backlog long before COVID-19 struck -- in rural and urban areas.
Native veterans are more likely to live far from VA facilities, tend to have lower personal incomes, higher unemployment and lack health insurance compared to their fellow veterans, according to the National Congress of American Indians. When they do receive care, they often face major cultural and language barriers. Native veterans also struggle to form tribal veterans service organizations, which could help navigate the sprawling bureaucracy of the VA and its claims system.
All this could place them at greater risk during the pandemic -- and not just from the virus.