‘Freedom Has to Be Fought For’: Brothers in Vietnam and Life Pt. 1

Meet five Navajo brothers that served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War in the first installment of a four part series.
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“War is hell and it isn’t right, but when your country needs you, you cannot turn your back on it,” says Mervyn Hillis, a Navajo veteran of the Vietnam War.

He is one of six brothers, five of whom had enlisted in the American military during the Vietnam War. They are the Hillis brothers: Carl Jr., Clyde, Lowell, Mervyn, and Russell. Four of these brothers went to Vietnam; Russell did not go to Vietnam as the conflict had ended by then. Although each brother served in different military branches and have different points of view about their reasons for serving, they shared the same experiences of war.

More than 42,000 American Indians served in Vietnam and over 90 percent of them were volunteers. This is the story of four of those Navajo men. I sat with my father Carl Jr. and my uncle Mervyn to discuss their service. It is one thing to learn about the Vietnam War from textbooks but to hear firsthand accounts from my loved ones was an emotional experience.

Historically, American Indians have had the highest record of service per capita compared to other ethnic groups. American Indians have participated with distinction in U.S. military actions for more than 200 years. This is a stark contrast to the history of American Indians, one that is rife with broken treaties, broken promises, and bloodshed carried out by the United States government.

Why American Indians would pledge allegiance to a country that has inflicted upon them great harm is perplexing. Even the Nazis in World War II knew of the United States’ mistreatment of Indians. In 1942, a translated Nazi propaganda broadcast predicted “an Indian uprising in the United States.” The broadcast rhetorically asked, “How could the American Indians think of bearing arms for their exploiters?” Contrary to such common misconceptions, American Indians had served admirably in WWII and as we know the Navajo Code Talkers greatly aided in the defeat of Japanese forces. But American Indians’ patriotism didn’t begin here nor did it stop there. From the American Revolution up to the recent Afghanistan conflict, American Indians’ participation has not waned.

Courtesy Patrick Hillis

A composite of the Hillis brothers with their father Carl Sr. Arranged from left to right: Carl Sr., Carl Jr., Mervyn, Clyde, and Lowell.

The Vietnam War is one that had America divided, a war born out of the Cold War, fears of Communism, and possible nuclear war. Disillusionment was widespread and anti-war protests mobilized in Washington, D.C. A popular protest chant went: “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Mervyn recalled that he never had anything against the president. “I was in Vietnam, to serve my country, and help the southern Vietnamese who were being butchered, raped, and mutilated by their own people. Freedom has to be fought for, freedom is not free,” he says. Ultimately, America lost the Vietnam War; the number of American casualties was 57,939. Though the war began almost immediately after WWII in 1945, American combat involvement began in 1965 and concluded in 1973 when American forces finally withdrew.

Carl Jr. is the eldest of the brothers and the first to enlist. He was a medic in the 101st Airborne Division. For him, this provided a much-needed adventure. “I always wanted to be a doctor but I never got the direction to do it.”

Returning veterans were not greeted with open cheers and parades like WWII veterans. Consequently, many suffered hardships returning home and would struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments from their military service, many of which were left untreated. Forty years after the Vietnam War, 11 percent of its veterans (about 283,000) still suffer from PTSD. Even more disheartening, thousands of veterans are still dealing with the inadequacies in receiving medical care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which fortunately is now undergoing massive restructuring.

There was almost nothing to celebrate except for friends and families thrilled to see their loved ones return and veterans happy to finally be home. Yet the horrors of war, the death and destruction, was hard for many Vietnam veterans to cope with. The Navajo people believe that war affects a soldier’s well-being, that it upsets the balance of life. There are two ceremonies conducted: the Blessing Way ceremony which ensures good luck and protection of soldiers, and the Enemy Way ceremony, which helps restore the state of balance for returning soldiers.

Navajo tradition was largely absent in the Hillis household. The brothers were raised by Christian values taught by their parents and the Church. “God protected me. I’m very glad that my mind is strong with God,” Mervyn says of his Vietnam service.

The Hillis brothers grew up in the small Navajo reservation town of Fort Defiance, Arizona in a family household of 10. Their father, Carl Hillis Sr., had served as a combat engineer in World War II in the United States Marine Corps and worked on electrical engineering back in his home town. “He was very smart yet he did not show off his smartness—the way he talked with wisdom,” recalls Mervyn.

Carl Sr. was a gold mine of that wisdom for his boys right up until the day he died.

RELATED: He Was a Father, a Soldier, a Gold Mine: Brothers in Vietnam and Life Pt. 2

Jesse Hillis, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, wrote this four-part series about his father and uncles who simultaneously served in various branches of the military and fought in Vietnam. Indian Country Today Media Network is pleased to publish his work through an internship in cooperation with the University of New Mexico.