It has the makings of a compelling World War II mini-series with a theme that will be familiar throughout Indian country—heartbreaking sacrifices and cultural loss in an attempt to support the war-effort and send a paycheck home to your family. Filling out the story’s plotline is a family’s history of serving their country and pride at being able to do so.
And as Native Americans serving during WWII struggled to do the right thing, their children were learning hard lessons about life and passing on to their children the importance of a good education and maintaining strong family values and support systems.
A 33-year-old divorced Choctaw mother with three young children to support, Nell Cavin, born in 1911, did the only thing that made sense to her at the time by joining the Women’s Army Corp on July 21, 1944 and shortly afterward found herself more than 1,000 miles from almost everything that was important and familiar to her.
Her three children, 14-year-old Coleen, 12-year-old Barbara and 11-year-old Arlen Dale “Bud” Cavin were relocated from their small apartment in Pueblo Colorado, with Coleen being moved to Utah to live with a Mormon family and her brother and sister more than likely placed with relatives, according to family members.
This is Coleen’s story and now that of her adult children’s —a patchwork of family recollections pieced together over the past four years since Coleen’s death by her son Jeff Estep and his sister Suzan Williams. “I really believe my grandmother did the best she could,” Estep says. “Not everybody understands what their actions do to the people who support them and my mother carried that burden all of her life. But in turn, she made sure that our family, her children, never lost a second of feeling her affection and never had to deal with abandonment issues.” Estep recently found out that when his grandmother Cavin enlisted, under ‘dependents’ she put ‘none.’ And because there were only three options for race on the enlistment paperwork, Negro, citizen; Undefined Code; and White, citizen; she enlisted as white.
Today Estep questions his grandmother’s reasons for joining the military – was it because it was the patriotic thing to do, or did she need the income to support her children? Was she running away from a bad divorce and the responsibilities of being a single mother? Whatever her reasons, Estep said that as he looks back on it now he can see his mother’s struggle. “She struggled with her mother serving her country, but how can you say anything bad about that?”
Mothers often share confidences with their daughters that they wouldn’t with other family members. That was the case with Coleen and her daughter Suzan. Unknown to her brother Jeff, the reason their grandmother joined the military and left her children behind was because she was ordered to by a judge. “My grandfather had abused her so often that the judge gave her an ultimatum, she either had to join the military or her husband would go to jail,” Williams said. “The sanctity of marriage was that important to my grandmother that she chose the military over her husband going to jail. The judge knew it was just a matter of time before she would be found dead from the beatings; I think that judge saved her life by ordering her to join the military.” Williams said her grandmother did eventually divorce their grandfather.
Nell Cavin was a very young mother at the age of 15 and Williams said her husband used to come and go at all hours of the day and night. “It was during the depression and people did whatever they could for jobs. Pueblo was a very strong steel mill town, so I would imagine that in support of the war effort they were all working around the clock to get the steel out for the military.”
An inch shy of five-feet, Estep said that his mother and grandmother may have been small women but they had big personalities. He remembers them both as strong women. “I think of my mother as small only because when I look at pictures of when I was between 10 and 12, I was already taller then her,” he says.
With their mother away, it didn’t come as a surprise when her three children didn’t finish school. Coleen stayed in high school until the age of 14 or 15 and her brother and sister didn’t make it past their freshman year. “That was very normal for everyone at the time,” Estep says. “My father also didn’t have a formal education outside of high school. My grandfather was the original Choctaw enrollee in our family and he never let us forget how important education is. So my parents were convinced that my brother, sisters and I would get an education, no matter what it took."
Of Coleen’s four children, Greg, Jeff and Paula went on to earn college degrees and the fourth, Suzan, went to work for the United States government. Theirs is the first generation on the Choctaw side to graduate from high school and go on to earn a higher education.
Coleen’s grandson, Jeff’s oldest son, Jeremy Estep, says his father talks about the close relationship he had with his mother and grandmother almost weekly. He says his father uses the values and life lessons passed on to him by his mother and grandmother in his day to day living. “A lot of people forget about where they come from, but he never does,” he says.
Liliana Estep, Jeff’s wife, says that his mother and father were good people. “He has embraced that and made it all the more about family and keeping family together,” she says. “I think he feels responsible to keep the legacy that his mother, dad and grandmother passed on to his siblings and his own children and grandchildren. Jeff was passionate about finding out more about his grandmother.”
What happened to Coleen’s young siblings? Her brother Bud was a career military man and was one of the first Green Berets in the Army. Her sister Barbara passed away in the early ’60s.
Grandma Nell? Estep says he was 28 when she passed. He joined the Marine Corps in 1971 and when he got his commission, he drove out to Colorado to see her. “I walked into her room at the nursing home in my dress uniform so she could have a moment of my commissioning as a 2nd Lt. She wasn’t able to join our family for health reasons and had been bedridden for six years at the time,” he recalls. “She and I needed to have a moment together, that was significant to me. She couldn’t do anything for herself and I wanted to make it right with her and make her proud.”
When she was in her late 40s, Grandma Nell moved in with Coleen, her husband and their children. She suffered from one of the severest cases of rheumatoid arthritis the VA Health Care System had ever seen according to Estep. When her disease began to get progressively worse, she moved into a nursing home near Pueblo Colorado where she was bedridden for the last 13 years of her life. “The VA was giving her medical heroin because her pain was so excruciating; they took care of her for over 20 years. On top of all that, she was in the same assisted living home as her mother who was there due to old age,” Estep says. Williams believes that her grandmother’s arthritis was so debilitating because her body had been so badly ravaged by the beatings her husband used to give her.
While both his grandmother and mother have now passed on, Estep says that serving in the military is in his family’s blood.
Estep’s father was a career military man and veteran of three wars and was decorated with the bronze star, ending his military career as a Chief Master Sergeant. He served as a gunner in a B-24 during WWII; the plane was shot down and landed in the Adriatic Ocean (just off the coast of Palermo, Italy), he was the sole survivor.
Estep’s brother Greg went to the Naval Academy and both his sisters, Suzan and Paula, married military veterans. “My mom stood by her husband during his 30-year military career, her sons going into the military and her daughters marrying military veterans,” he says. “My entire family of siblings has had military service or been connected to it one way or the other. I know my mother was extremely proud of that and proud of her own mom being in the Army. My mother was always extraordinary about keeping our family tight. Some of that I always thought was the Choctaw way and I do believe that’s true. But as I get older I realize because of what she suffered she wasn’t going to let that happen to her family again. I was a good Marine because of these women and I think I’ve become a better man because of them.” Estep says both his parents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Williams said she believes her mother was like a lost child when grandma Nell joined the Army. “You talk about Indian heritage and the Trail of Tears – the whole family nucleus was disrupted,” she said. “It was her grandparents that gave my mom and her siblings the foundation that they needed to carry on with their own lives.”
Coleen told her young children that if their husbands ever slapped or beat them to walk out the door and never look back. “My mother would preach that to my brothers, don’t ever lay a hand on your girlfriend or your wife,” Williams said. “That is how our mother turned it around, she was able to say this is the standard and you are not going to do this to your families. But I don’t remember her being bitter towards her mother. She probably felt like any teen would when the person who held their family together left. Her mother walked out on them – it was the destruction of their family.”
Liliana’s 18-year old daughter Olivia Cartelli says her grandmother’s influence shows in her father’s respectful relationships with women. She says one of the things she loved most about her grandmother Coleen was the fact that: “She was strong, as in she didn’t take anyone’s crap.”
Jeff left the Marine Corps as a disabled veteran and is the owner and president of two successful businesses, Heritage Global Solutions and its commodities arm—Heritage Global. Heritage Global is also working under contract for the Small Business Administration’s Office of Native American Affairs, in cooperation with the Office of Veterans Business Development, conducting education and outreach programs promoting the growth and employment in small businesses owned and operated by Native American veterans (NAVBIZ on Facebook).
Shawn Estep, Jeff’s second son, says their family is very proud advocates of the military. “The thing about the Estep family that started with my great grandmother and my grandmother is that family is first. And possibly because of our family’s military background we all have each other’s backs no matter what. That’s just how our family is. No matter what is going on in the outside world, when we are all together it’s all about us.”
To honor his mother’s memory, Jeff and Liliana set up a scholarship through the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to help any Choctaw woman attending a four-year college or university. “We have put in close to $10,000 over the past three years, I am really proud of that,” Jeff says.
“My dad is a very strong leader with a strong attitude and that all came from his mother,” Shawn says. “The one person my dad always went to for advice, suggestions, love or anything else was his mom. He talked to her every day. My dad had the strongest relationship I have ever seen with his mom—and she was the one person he respected more than anyone on this earth.”
All five of Coleen’s grandchildren are college graduates and today are writing the next chapter in their family’s history. And it is one that, according to her son Jeff, she would be proud of.
“Jeff listened to our mother all of his life, he spoke to her every day of his life for the last 20 years; getting encouragement, talking about family issues, parenthood, planned trips and her faith in God,” Williams said.
“Not only was Jeff a devoted son, he is a wonderful dad to his kids Jeremy and Shawn and a terrific grandfather to his three grandkids. Jeff has been married to two wonderful wives (Lil and Leslie), who both support him. He is a wonderful dad to Olivia and she adores him. Jeff has been a terrific uncle to my two children, Nicole and Megan, he has supported them throughout their lives; college, gaining employment and starting their own families. He has been a wonderful supportive brother to his siblings.
“Jeff continues to carry on the family legacy. As he learned from our mother and her mother before her, we are here on this earth to support each other, to love one another and help each other in any way,” she said.