Native American Vietnam Veterans
Native Americans have one of the highest record of service in the Vietnam era conflict, per capita, of any ethnic group. A majority of these men enlisted, and a disproportional number served in combat positions: in infantry regiments, tank battalions, airborne and airmobile units, and artillery batteries.
At first glance, these statistics might seem surprising. After all, historically, the U.S. military took Native land by force, and wiped out a generation of Indian warriors. Paradoxically, however, the recruitment of Native Americans had been as much a federal policy as Indian removal. Indians were recruited to fight with American forces against the British and the French. Native American served in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and were recruited by both sides in the Civil War.
A much more powerful and persistant reason for the record of service, is that, in fact, many Indian veterans think of their modern warfare experience in terms of much older traditions. For many tribes, war was equally a physical and spiritual experience. Warriors were ritually prepared for, and ceremonially returned from the battlefield. Young men desired to have their strength, courage, and honor tested in war.
But Vietnam was a very different kind of conflict. The perennial problem of finding and fixing enemy positions was a complicated and almost impossible task. There was no simple distinction between civilian and combatant. And the use of mines, foot-traps, and other distance devices put the enemy nowhere and everywhere. It made any manoever extremely dangerous. Last, but not least, the political divisions at home caused uncertainty and anger.
In some ways the experience of Native Americans is very similar to other Vietnam veterans, and in other ways, very different. What follows are excerpts from the documentary, WARRIORS. Each person we interviewed is represented here in their own words, as they share different aspects of their war-time experience. You can jump to a subject that interests you by using the links.
This introduction is adapted from Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Vietnam Veterans by Tom Holm, University of Texas Press, 1996
why they went
I still have dreams about it. I've dreamed that I've gone back for the second time, and now my dreams are that I'm going back for the third tour in Vietnam. And I don't understand why I'm having these dreams. In my dreams I'll be flying out of the States, and I'm looking around and I can't figure out why I'm going back for the third time and some guys haven't gone over there yet.
A lot of the dreams I had when I first came back, I would be in a fire fight or a battle and have a rifle in my hand. And these guys are coming and coming and I'm pulling on the trigger, and I can't pull it. It won't fire. Well, in that firefight that I was wounded in, they overran us three times that first night.
Most of the time I try to look at it like a dream, like I never really was over there. I know I was, but I always just felt this way, like it was something I dreamed. That was just one of my ways of dealing with it, I guess.
why they went
Back in World War I, over 10,000 Indians served in the military. Citizenship wasn't granted to all American Indians until 1924, six years after the war was over. Yet these Indians volunteered. They went and served.
In those days, you didn't have the entertainment, like we have today. The big entertainment was to stand around telling stories. Whether it was at a drinking party, or out ricing, it's real common to slip into story-telling. And I can name guys- going back to World War II- the warriors, the vets from all the wars, all the way through. And I'd listen to these stories and I'd say, I'm from here, I'm a warrior. I come from a long line of warriors, back to when the Chippewa were fighting the Sioux. So I feel like I'm part of that line.
I think that was a way of getting away from the reservation. For me, it was something to do. I didn't wait to get drafted.
I had a friend that was killed in Vietnam. And I'd seen a lot of it on TV. I couldn't really believe it. It was like a movie. And I thought, well, it couldn't really be that bad. I don't know how to explain it, I just joined. I enlisted. About a year later, I was over there. It was real, all right.
I was named by my great grandfather when I was a child. I was blessed by him and given a name. It means "the little warrior". He told my mother that I would be the one to carry on our tradition as a warrior. So it's been more or less since birth that I've been kind of destined to served in a war.
Many of the Indian tribes had warriors dances, soldier dances, peyote meetings, prayer meetings, feasts, or something along those lines to prepare the individuals to go. The bullet-proofing ceremony for some tribes. And he's given recognition and honor when he leaves. We did a survey and it looks like forty per cent of the Indians had some kind of tribal recognition or feast or something, going or coming home. That's forty per cent. So there's sixty per cent who didn't have anything for themselves. Their family didn't have the money to provide something like this, or maybe the family wasn't a traditional family.
The first survey we did said that 37 per cent had been wounded. That's a pretty high percent rate. The reason for that was that they were in the front lines. If you are an Indian, you are supposed to be good. We had one Navajo guy who was born and reared in the city. And he had no conception of making his way around in the woods, or anything. And yet, he was put on point, because he was an Indian.
We were supposed to be great sneak artists, brave, etc. We were supposed to be able to sneak into enemy camp and do things. Every time an operations came up, you would find yourself either leading a patrol, or the point man. When you'd question that, they'd say "Well, you Indians have that sixth sense." A lot of times I just said "Bullshit." We have the same faults as the other guy.
Indian people have always respected their vets. It's never made any difference with the politics of the war. They recognize these people who have done a sacrifice for them. When they serve, they are serving for their people. And that's who they do it for. And Indians recognize this. So when they come home, they come home with honor and dignity. Not like many of the non-Indians who came home to outright hostility. Yet, that does not keep you from having the problems. Indians are human beings, too. Traumatic events are traumatic for us as well as the for a non-Indian.The only thing Indian people do, is, they recognize this. Indian people have recognized that war changes people. For centuries and centuries and centuries, they've known this. So when you send a person to war, something happens to him out there. But- they are not held in any low esteem. It's recognized that- these people did something that is completely against the law of the universe. They stepped into total turmoil, disruption. And they did this for their people.
I think a lot of the problems that a lot of Native American Vietnam vets have is much deeper than the drugs and alcohol. There's a lot of inner things that are happening in that person. Be it cultural differences, or what they've seen or experienced. The mud, the blood, all those things. I think it's deeper than the drugs itself.
post traumatic stress
All societies recognize this. If you are going to send someone off to war. there is an unwritten contract that you are going to bring these people home with honor and respect. And it's always happened in this country. Except with the Vietnam war. The frustration of the war fell upon the vet himself. They turned out to be the bad guys. That's why there is the magnitude of problems among the Vietnam vets. And why the problems have persisted for so long.
I think a lot of times we didn't know where to go with our problems, our frustrations, and our searching for answers. Indian vets are no different than anyone else. I went to Nam out of curiosity. I wasn't there for any particular patriotic reason, but when I came back, I suffered from what I know now as delayed stress. I just thought it was growing pains or whatever. I didn't have a name for it. I just felt rotten.
When I first got back, I had a lot of anger in me and I don't know why. I understood more about it when I got back then when I was over there. I had no idea except I thought I was doing my job. And I ran into other people and everyone seemed to be against the war. So I never talked about it. I kept it to myself, my feelings, my opinions. And I started getting angrier and angrier. I did a lot of drugs and drinking, that was part of it. To forget. It was just kind of a bad experience. Yet I had some good times over there, too.
The first time I went to Vietnam I was nineteen years old. I turned twenty in Vietnam. And that was really the most hazardous tour of duty in Vietnam because I did see a lot of action and I spent a lot of time as an infantry trooper. And I saw a lot of people die that first time in Vietnam. And it hardened me. It hardened me to the point where I didn't believe in a lot of things I had been taught to believe in. The goodness of man and God, and trust, things like that. That first tour in Vietnam destroyed a lot of things in me.
The reason I suffered delayed stress was- well, we had a phrase in the Marine Corps. It was called hard core. It was a compliment if you were hard core. But it had a negative effect when you came home because up until that period in my life I hadn't experienced any intense emotions other than fear. I hadn't experienced grief, intense hate, intense love, or anything like that. And in the Marine Corps, to some degree, you try to suppress those emotions. Then after my brother was killed, all these emotions came out. I had a hard time dealing with them.
When you are in the service, you come back with- forgetting for a moment the delayed stress syndrome- a lot of skills. At least I did. Having served in the army, I was in administration. In the Navy, I had a medical background. And you come back with a certain amount of maturity, you come back with a certain amount of confidence. And these are skills that are needed to survive anyplace.
I think if you would look at a lot of the Vietnam vets and look at a lot of the Indian activists periods, you'd find that a lot of them are Vietnam vets. You look through a lot of the tribal councils and stuff, you'd find a lot of Vietnam vets there. Pushing their tribes toward self determination. Sovereignty. They're still moving toward that. I think that's probably a tribute to Vietnam vets because they've had to get up and shake off that image that they've had, and come back and say "We are leaders."
I don't think the American Indian has to go into the service to survive. I think they go because they want to. I think they go because they are super patriots. I mean, any pow-wow you go to, the American flag, after all the American government has done to Indian people, the American flag is still there. Always. You always see it there. I think any war the United States fights, there'll be Indians in a high ratio involved in it, in the actual fighting.
One of the things that the Vietnam experience has done for me, I guess, probably the most profound experience, is that it's given me an attitude that I've never had before. It's not that this country owes me anything or anything like that. What it's done is solidified my place in this country. I don't have to take a back seat to nobody now. I paid my dues. I was talking to my son the other day. And I asked him if he wanted to go into the service. He shook his head. And that's all right. I told him that. Because I paid his dues. His uncle that was killed in Vietnam paid the price. I said "You don't have to go". He can go to college or whatever else he wants to do.
Sent to me by Joe "Bear Warrior" Gonzales