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Former Marine still fighting demons and bureaucracies

DUNCAN, British Columbia -- The wounds are deep, but still close to the
surface for Marine veteran Joe Gray-Thorne.

Although it's been more than 20 years since he was airlifted from the
jungles of Vietnam, it only takes a brief thought of a fallen friend to
make him stop and wipe tears from his eyes.

Gray-Thorne was drafted by the U.S. Marines Reconnaissance and Infantry
Division, the toughest of the tough, at only 17 years old. Called out of
his homeroom at Cleveland High School in Seattle by a "big, burly
sergeant," he was immediately shipped to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in
San Diego.

"It's still the only time in history the Marines drafted people, and under
the Payne's Treaty Act, First Nations people on either side of the border
can be drafted," said Gray-Thorne, who served with the Marines from 1969 --
'73 and spent 19 months in Vietnam. "You only had two choices: go be a
soldier or go to prison until the war was over. Either way you lose," he
said.

It was six weeks before his mother knew where he was, after his civilian
clothes were sent to her from the U.S. Marine Corps base.

"The first thing we did was spend 36 hours standing at attention. I
flinched once and got punched. You learn to take direction in a hurry,"
said Gray-Thorne.

After basic training, he was shipped along with 88 others to Camp Pendleton
north of San Diego for reconnaissance and advanced infantry training. While
there, he became close friends with a fellow private who was a direct
descendant of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. For the first year, Gray-Thorne
only knew him as Private Logan.

"You weren't allowed to say 'I' or 'you.' Everything was 'we,'" said
Gray-Thorne. "If someone came within our ranks we were trained to kill
them. The brainwashing was intense. When I got a five-day furlough,
everyone on the outside was a slimy civilian: that's what we were trained.
The only thing in our minds was Semper Fi [U.S. Marine credo, Latin for
'always faithful']," he said.

"[Logan] and I did everything together. We went on R&R together, served on
point duty in the jungle together," Gray-Thorne said before stopping
suddenly to wipe his eyes and regain his composure. "I miss him," he said
in a wavering voice.

Of the 88 men Gray-Thorne trained and served with in his division, he is
the last remaining member. Many were killed in an attack outside Danang,
including Logan. Gray-Thorne barely made it out himself.

Shipped to a veterans hospital in Seattle, Gray-Thorne said he was "broken
up pretty bad."

When his mother came to see him, she was shocked to see Gray-Thorne lying
in the same hospital room where her husband had died, being overseen by the
same doctor who had pronounced his father, a WWII veteran, dead years
before.

Sitting in Gray-Thorne's corner of the Coast Salish Employment and Training
Society office in Duncan, where he works as an employment training
counselor, he lists some of the wounds still visible on his body: bayonet
and barbed-wire wounds on his arms, legs and torso; a reconstructed nose
smashed by the butt of a rifle; and shrapnel still floating around inside
him.

But the most horrific wounds run much deeper.

Not only does he still live with the nightmares and flashbacks suffered by
so many other traumatized Vietnam veterans, he is still fighting a
government system that has long failed to fully recognize the contribution
of aboriginal soldiers.

"We were warned by other guys, but it was still a shock to get back home
and be hated by people because you had served in Vietnam," he said. "I see
people now treating returning soldiers from Iraq the same way, and I
wouldn't wish that on anyone," he said.

Gray-Thorne, a member of the Ditidaht and Cowichan First Nations, returned
home to the Malachan Reserve in British Columbia, only to be launched into
a new battle. The Marines would not supply veteran services outside the
United States, and the Canadian government would not provide services to
soldiers who served for the American military.

"There's so much that has to be done for our veterans that just isn't
happening. You see what the governments have done for everyone else, and
then you see the little they've done for us; it's disgusting," said
Gray-Thorne. "If we have dual citizenship, we should have dual rights," he
said.

Gray-Thorne saw his father, Oscar, wage the same battle after returning
home from Burma in WWII where he served with the U.S. Army.

Non-Native soldiers received land and money from the federal government
upon return from battle, but Native soldiers who fought side by side and
spilled their blood along with their non-Native counterparts were told they
already had land on reservations, so they wouldn't be given any more.

"We hurt just like the non-Natives. We have the same nightmares day after
day," said Gray-Thorne, who carries the veteran's staff and does the
Veteran's Dance at pow wows across Canada and the United States. "There are
very few veterans dinners in Canada, and very few invitations to go to
schools and talk to people about the veteran's experiences. The pow wow is
the only thing that our veterans have," he said, adding it was many years
before he could gain entrance to the Royal Canadian Legion since he was a
Marine. "It hasn't been an easy fight for us."

Recently, Gray-Thorne was elected president of the British Columbia chapter
of the National Aboriginal Veteran's Association, where he continues his
fight for all aboriginal veterans.

Gray-Thorne was recently involved in NAVA's fight to have aboriginal
veterans of WWII and families of fallen First Nations soldiers sent to
Europe to tour cemeteries in France and Belgium and conduct ceremonies to
bring home the spirits of those buried so far away.

Gray-Thorne's brother, Glen Gray, served with the 101st Airborne Special
Forces; another brother, Buddy Gray, was a member of the U.S. Army Commando
Unit. Their mother has already told her grandchildren "no more," a
sentiment with which he wholeheartedly agrees.

"We have enough wars to fight here at home just to survive," said
Gray-Thorne, who was in Victoria on Nov. 11 to represent aboriginal
veterans in the Remembrance Day Parade.

But Gray-Thorne is still bothered by the lack of respect shown to both
aboriginal and non-Native veterans in this country.

"When you go into a tribal office in the States, there's a wall of photos
of people from that nation who served and died defending their freedom,
their country, their people and their families. Why don't we have that
here?" he asked. "People don't take Remembrance Day seriously. Some people
just see it as a paid day off work. That's wrong and so incredibly
disrespectful and insulting," he said.

Gray-Thorne doesn't often talk about his experience in Vietnam. "Who's
going to understand?" he said, recognizing that no one other than a fellow
soldier can understand the lifelong physical and psychological trauma
suffered by those who return from war.

But all have a responsibility to try to understand.

2005 is the Year of the Veteran in Canada: Celebrate. Honor. Thank.
Remember. Teach.