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Blackfeet continue military tradition

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BROWNING, Mont. - Many troops in the Middle East are awaiting their orders for military action against Iraq. Army Staff Sergeant Earl Heavyrunner has first hand knowledge about desert combat.

On Jan. 18, 1991, just two days after fighting began during Desert Storm, Heavyrunner was shipped from Germany to Saudi Arabia. In less than an hour of being on the tarmac, with a state of confusion predominant, he knew he was in an active war zone.

"We were noticing the flares. But they weren't flares, those were patriot missiles after Iraqi Scuds that were landing a half-mile away," said Heavyrunner, 36, a member of the Blackfeet in Browning, Mont. He was one of 3,000 American Indians who served in the Armed Forces during the last conflict against Saddam Hussein.

Heavyrunner's immediate family has direct ties to the military. His father, Jess Sr., was a decorated Staff Sergeant with the Marines in the 1950s, his oldest brother Jess Jr. served in Vietnam and his brother Keith was in the Army for four years.

Heavyrunner's role in the Persian Gulf was as a Specialist E4. He was responsible for guarding the trucks transporting ammunition to the front lines in Kuwait. In a world far removed from his station in Europe, Heavyrunner immediately noticed the dust, dirt and heat of his new surroundings.

"It ranged from 80 degrees at night to 130 degrees in the day. You got by drinking lots of water and the only thing they [soldiers today] can do to comfort themselves is to keep clean," the sergeant said.

While Earl Heavyrunner remains active in the armed forces, Keith is the Tribal Veterans Representative, a link between Veterans Affairs and Natives. Serving between 1979-83, Keith believes past generations of Indian fighters were inspired by pride.

"They didn't go in for the education or the money but the honor and respect of their people," Keith said. He was also a Specialist E4.

Both Heavyrunners follow in a long line of Indians fighting for the United States. Even before America became involved in World War I, more than 6,000 Indians volunteered for combat duty with the Canadian army. Once the U.S. entered the war thousands of Indians volunteered. Shortly after the Armistice, the U.S. Congress permitted Indian veterans to vote. This later led to full citizenship for all Natives in 1924.

A generation later, more than 40,000 Indians participated in the second World War, including the recently celebrated codetalkers of the Navajo tribe. By Vietnam, 42,000 Natives were in the Armed Forces, 90 percent of whom were volunteers. They were the largest ethnic group to serve by virtue of percentage of population.

Keith Heavyrunner wears a camouflage-colored jacket with several patches, including the black and white POW-MIA insignia. His office at the Blackfeet Veterans Society is surrounded by posters commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean conflict. It also houses souvenirs collected by some of the tribe's members, including a Soviet army hat and a Kuwaiti flag whose colors are fading with age.

Keith estimates that there are more than 150 Blackfeet presently serving their nation and another 700 to 1,000 veterans. That number would be consistent with a national average where one out of every four Indian males is a former member of the military.

With about 9,000 on the reservation, the Blackfeet are in the top 10 of the country's tribes in armed forces participation. A wooden plaque with more than 200 names carved alphabetically hangs as an honor roll recognizing those tribal members who served in World War II. A list, which Keith points out, that is only about half-complete.

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If Indians historically volunteered to fight out of a sense of tribal and national honor, Keith suggests that today's soldier be more realistic about what is available for them. Indians are last among ethnic groups when seeking assistance from Veterans Affairs.

"A lot of the time, they didn't know what they were eligible for," he said about former veterans missing out on benefits. He can't understand why there is such reluctance to ask for help today.

Keith helped initiate a bill that recently passed in Montana. Two Americans Indians will now be permitted to serve on the state's Board for Veterans Issues. He also pointed out that VA Hospitals are incorporating traditional healing ceremonies for Native patients.

Another family among the Blackfeet with a strong military background is the Old Persons, starting with Carl Sr. A corporal in the Army, Old Person served three years in the late 1960s including being stationed in Germany. Denied from going to Vietnam, Old Person never had any hesitation in volunteering for the military despite the domestic protests.

"Everybody was going and I wanted to serve my country," he said.

His three children have followed in his footsteps by entering the Army. His oldest son, Carl III, is currently stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. With the attention of the world focused on Iraq, Carl Sr. says his son's job of aeronautics repair can be hectic.

"They're pretty busy lately and there is a war going on over there, even though people think it's down," Old Person said.

For Earl Heavyrunner, one of the more graphic memories he retains from his stint in the Persian Gulf was entering a liberated Kuwait for clean-up responsibilities. Along the "Highway of Death," with oil wells burning en masse in the distance, Heavyrunner witnessed the road littered with burnt bodies, including one truck driver with both hands clenched on the steering wheel when the flames engulfed his final breaths.

But he says there is tremendous gratification in serving in the military when the role is as a peacekeeper. Besides seeing the Kuwaitis freed from their oppressor, Heavyrunner was in Berlin at the time of that city's reunification.

"I could see people being free. They never had freedom and were getting a taste of it," Heavyrunner said. He was previously stationed 500 feet from where the East German soldiers patrolled the Berlin Wall.

Heavyrunner has recently signed up for another six years with the National Guard and has returned following a six-month tour of Bosnia where he was promoted to Staff Sergeant of a Bradley Commander, a light tank with a nine-man crew. In this peacekeeping mission, his responsibility was to patrol between villages on a daily basis to overlook the cease-fire.

On a personal level, Heavyrunner stated the Army opened his eyes as to what the world is really all about. That can be especially valuable for those who live in rural or isolated areas.

"They can appreciate what they have now after seeing that [war zones]. When they grow up, they'll see what the world is like instead of just the reservations," said Heavyrunner.