Cari James has been described as a devoted caregiver, a community volunteer, a peer-educator and an ambassador to the minority veteran community – but to hear Cari tell it, such titles and accomplishments are “mere opportunities that just happened naturally.”
While James initially planned to become a journalist, her interest in medicine was triggered after the tragic death of her mother at age 48. “I was in pursuit of learning about the rare blood disease that led to my mother’s death,” James explained. Her curiosity led to a degree in nursing.
As an LPN in the pre-procedure clinic at Carl Hayden, she has developed a “one-stop shop” – or so her colleagues call it – performing EKGs, phlebotomy services, medication reviews, pre-and-post operative education, advance directives, transport, lodging and psychosocial assessment needs for veteran patients scheduled for surgery and their families. But when her shift is over, it’s what she does off the clock that categorizes her for national recognition.
As the minority veterans’ coordinator at Carl Hayden, James is the only female American Indian nationwide to hold such a position. Her advocacy for ailing minority veterans throughout Phoenix, Laburnum and Tuscon, Ariz., was cultivated when she received a phone call that an ill veteran would soon arrive via public transportation. “I just couldn’t believe our rural veterans had no source of transportation,” she said. “I immediately saw a need and began contacting organizations to help finance hospital transportation.”
After 8 months of collaboration, a major donation of $52,000 given by Veterans Ensured Through Services (VETS) helped with the purchase of a 15-passenger, wheelchair-accessible van.
Another chance to help emerged after James realized that a process was lacking for American Indian veterans to learn the policies and criteria of their pension and benefits. “I asked for one representative from each of the 21 reservations to help me form a grass-roots committee where we could talk healthcare, benefits, housing and education,” she said. The committee’s vision to be “one voice, under one governing body” became a reality when the Arizona Inter-Tribal Veterans Association (AITVA) was founded in 2004.
The AITVA was an immediate success, inspiring a national initiative and a model for the newly founded National American Indian Veterans, Inc. Cari James hosted the inaugural national meeting in Phoenix. “I’m humbled to say that National American Indian Veterans is a large organization with more than 200 people working together,” James said. “Government entities now have a venue for addressing issues related to American Indian veterans.”
James is passionate about teaching others, and she employs her leadership development in classes to help veterans realize their career opportunities. On a larger scale, James has seen major advancement in the VA hospitals as a nationwide entity. “Continued education classes are provided as the VA program is continually improving as a whole,” James said. “This is exciting to me because I can see movement toward better understanding and respect for veterans.”
The United States is home to 185,000 American Indian veterans – one of whom is James’ father, a Korean War veteran. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, so James keeps that in mind when caring for her veteran patients. James has been an irrefutable contributor to improved healthcare for veterans. However, it’s her grandmother’s old adage that, she believes, enabled her to make an impact: “The Creator does not call the equipped, He equips whom He calls.”