The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

March/April 2004
FEATURE
   
 

Inner Strength & Grace
VVA Honors Native American Veterans

BY STEVE HOUSE


From the beginning, Native Americans have participated in wars fought by this country, side by side with all people of color. They have done so with pride and patriotism. Native Americans set the standard for minorities in terms of the numbers who volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War. They served in a disproportionately high number of combat positions, one-in-four compared to one-in-twelve for the rest of the population.

More than 41,500 American Indians served in the armed forces during the Vietnam War. The cultural traditions that have guided them may, in part, explain this  outstanding record of volunteer service. The Vietnam War was the first to integrate troops. People of all colors fought side by side. In combat, many overcame racial biases.

Because large numbers of Native Americans served in combat roles, there were many casualties. Native Americans suffered from high rates of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and health problems related to Agent Orange, malaria, and dengue fever. Racial injustice also occurred. Imagine growing up in a culture that embraces a warrior society and being told to "saddle up, you are in Indian Country now." They saddled up, but some felt confused; others felt angry. They put aside their feelings in order to carry out the order of the day.

On February 14, VVA honored Native American Vietnam veterans at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence Kansas. Haskell opened in 1884 to 22 American Indian children. When the school expanded its program and renamed itself the United States Indian Industrial Training School, enrollment went from 22 to 400 during a single semester. For 120 years, Haskell, now a fully accredited four-year university, has provided an education for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

As Region 6 Director and a member of the Minority Affairs Committee, I felt it was time for recognition. At half time during a men's basketball game,  the Haskell Veterans Honor Guard set the stage for a special recognition program. VVA Kansas State Council President Mike Kuhn and Missouri State Council President Al Gibson brought many VVA members to participate in this special ceremony.

Karen Gayton Swisher accepted the plaque and statue that we presented to the university. Both will be displayed in the new cultural center and museum. Athletic Director Dwight Pickering introduced the VVA members to the teams and spectators and permitted me to present our program. All veterans in attendance were asked by the Haskell Veterans Club to come out on the basketball floor to be recognized for their service.

The plaque inscription reads:

"Vietnam Veterans of America recognizes the selfless dedication to duty to all Original Americans who bravely served their country during the Vietnam War. Your inner strength and grace is well known with all Vietnam Veterans. Mere words will never properly express this long-overdue gesture of gratitude from Vietnam Veterans of America and our nation.

Presented by Vietnam Veterans of American Region Six and the Minorities Affairs Committee."

The statue depicts an American Indian Vietnam veteran wearing a bush hat, a bear claw necklace, and a pair of sunglasses, with MACV and 1st Infantry patches. An Indian blanket shawl wrapped around the base completes this piece. The colors mimic the pastels of the New Mexico landscape. The sculptor, Barry Coffin, is a well-known artist who grew up on the Haskell campus and served two tours in Vietnam.

We were invited to attend a Pueblo Throw after the women's basketball game. Throws are a way of giving thanks by tenderly throwing food, candy, and other items into a crowd of people. People who are given items consider it good fortune. Later, we were invited to a powwow accompanied by drums and dancers that gave all veterans spiritual recognition for their service. The Haskell Veterans Club presented Region 6 with a wood-framed glass engraving of its logo.

Virgil Allen,  the director of Facilities Management at Haskell, a Vietnam veteran, and  a Native American, helped coordinate this project. Allen talked about the Veterans Club at Haskell and the statue it has commissioned to honor the mothers who have had children in the Armed Forces.

Additional information on Haskell Indian Nations University can be found at its website, www.haskell.edu For information on the mother's statue, contact Virgil Allen at 785-749-8467.
 

   

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