Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks to Native American War Veterans This Thanksgiving

I've always loved Thanksgiving. That's not exactly a revelation, I know. But for me, the holiday is all about the Native Americans. Even as a young boy, I was far more curious what the American Indians were thinking about the Pilgrims during that historic feast than what the Pilgrims were thinking about the Indians. 

After all, the Indians were here first. The Pilgrims were the guests at this dinner, not the other way around.

The point of all this is to remind you that not only is this Thanksgiving week, it's also National Native American Heritage Month. And as we gather with our family and friends to give thanks, it would be nice for us to remember just how big a contribution Native Americans have made to our country. And, specifically, to our military.

According to statistics released this week by the Department of Veterans Affairs:
  • 14,000 American Indians fought in World War I.
  • 44,000 served in World War II, including code talkers from more than 30 tribes.
  • 10,000 served in Korea.
  • More than 80,000 served in Vietnam.
  • And 30,000 serve today in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.

Just a couple of days after the 9/11 terrorist attack, I went with my wife and some friends to a concert at the Viejas Casino near San Diego to see the rock band Chicago. The casino is owned by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. 

America was still in a collective state of shock over the despicable act of cowardice against our country. But leave it to a stoic, charismatic Native American to put it all in perspective and remind us what's important.

Just before the concert started, one of the tribal leaders walked out on stage, and a big American flag was unfurled. The crowd went wild.

The tribal leader, whose name I have forgotten, stood there for several minutes just trying to gather his emotions. The crowd continued to cheer, and many of us were in tears. 

He then proceeded to give one of the most touching and patriotic speeches I have ever witnessed.

It never ceases to amaze me how much the native Americans I have met in my life love this country. It's a bit surprising given how atrociously their ancestors were treated.

I have never met a person in this country who does not feel some sense of regret for how the American Indians were treated throughout our history. But that has not stopped the American Indian population from proudly serving this country during all our wars.

A few days ago, the White House hosted the fifth annual Tribal Nations Conference, where tribal leaders engaged in government-to-government discussions with President Obama and senior officials from the administration regarding issues affecting Native Americans.

VA Secretary Shinseki addressed tribal leaders during the conference, and shared information about American Indians who have long served the country in every war of the last century. 

Stephanie Birdwell, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is the granddaughter of World War I and World War II veterans and the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran. She writes a poignant blog this week for VA in which she talks about her personal connection to the legacy of bravery and tenacity that Shinseki addressed at the conference. 

"Growing up," she writes, "I observed first-hand the challenges our veterans experience upon returning home from service. I remember my father accepted many late-night phone calls from the men he served with. They all shared experiences in combat that forged permanent bonds and relationships that would see them through not only their time in Vietnam but throughout their lives."

When the opportunity arose to help establish VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations, Birdwell notes, "It opened the door to combine two of my passions: Working collaboratively with tribes to achieve opportunities for Indian people and serving our nation’s heroes. Since then, our office has managed relationships between the VA and tribal governments across the country. We focus on implementing VA’s tribal consultation policy, promoting economic sustainability and facilitating increased access to care and benefits for veterans living in tribal communities."

Birdwell says these native American veterans include Senator and Northern Cheyenne Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal member PFC Charles George – both of whom served in Korea. George was posthumously presented the Medal of Honor; the VA medical center in Asheville, N.C. is named in his honor.

They also include Hopi Specialist Lori Piestewa, a 23-year-old mother of two who, Birdwell writes, was the first Native American woman to die in combat and the first American woman to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

It's great to see VA reaching out to our Native Americans. But as I said, I'm a little biased. Most of my heroes in movies were the Indians, not the cowboys. 

What can I say? I'm a patriotic American, but in Kevin Costner's American epic "Dances With Wolves," I, like a lot of you, I suspect, rooted for the Indians, not the cowboys.

So this Thanksgiving, how about let's remember and give thanks to ALL who have served our country, including those who were here first!

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