Memorial honors Oglala veterans

KYLE, S.D. - Ola Millie Rexroat, Oglala Sioux Tribal member, didn't know how to drive a car, but she thought she could fly an airplane.

During World War II, Rexroat flew planes that pulled targets for artillery practice and she was the only American Indian woman among the 1,700 women who flew those planes.

Rexroat was specially honored during the unveiling of the Oglala War Veterans memorial dedicated to the Oglala Lakota veterans June 23.

Veterans are honored at every pow wow and every official gathering on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but now a permanent memorial has been established that includes the names of veterans from all wars.

The Oglala Lakota College was instrumental in organizing and developing the memorial, which is located at the Piya Wiconi Administrative Headquarters for OLC.

''I stand in honor of veterans who couldn't come home, for those who went to the spirit world and for those who are not here today. I am not a veteran but I have the greatest respect for veterans,'' said Newton Cummings, president of the board of trustees for OLC.

''Without the akicita [warriors], where would we be today?'' he asked.

Cummings said the memorial is significant because the future generations will know who the warriors were and who it was that sacrificed to make them free and safe.

The memorial contains more than 1,800 names from all wars in which Oglalas served in the defense of the United States.

''As Lakota people, our pride to protect our people at home calls us to service,'' said Tasha Standing Soldier, Air Force Captain, Oglala Lakota, and a pharmacist. Standing Soldier represented the military at the memorial dedication.

Of all the Oglala men and women who have served in the armed forces, only a few have reached officer rank. Standing Soldier is one, while Rexroat reached the rank of Captain.

When Rexroat left the Air Force she worked as an air traffic controller. She is one of the 400 female, veteran pilots from WWII who is still alive, and the group meets somewhere every year for a reunion.

''I am very happy to be here. This is a beautiful sight. I have never been to the college and we owe a debt to the people who made this college possible,'' Rexroat said.

She said the survivors of Wounded Knee were veterans also.

Rexroat was presented with the American Indian Medal of Valor, and received an honorary master's degree in Lakota Leadership from OLC.

WWII veterans returned to the reservation without degrees and mostly accepted jobs as bus drivers and carpenters, and they raised families, said Tom Shortbull, OLC president.

He reminded the audience that busses would drive to the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribal Reservation and ask if anyone wanted to go fight. Many American Indian veterans served in the Spanish American War and they haven't stopped since.

''Almost every family on the reservation has someone whose name is on this wall,'' Shortbull said.

''I salute you with words, and respect what you did for this country,'' he said.

To honor veterans is a tradition of the Oglala Lakota. When warriors returned from battles hundreds of years ago, the entire community welcomed them home with ceremonies. Today, the same is true.

''As I was growing up, I would see flags everywhere, post World War II at pow wows,'' said John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He said the dedication follows prior years of honoring veterans, first from World War I, then WWII and subsequent wars each year.

''Honoring of veterans is a tradition; it comes from our people from a long, long time ago.

''I am a Vietnam veteran and when we came back we had seen things that affected us psychologically. Just like [a] long time ago when our war parties came back, they experienced what our veterans are feeling right now,'' Steele said.

''Our people must have understood this,'' he said.

He said coming back from Vietnam, he landed at San Francisco where he had eggs thrown at him. Later he went for training and he was called names.

''This weighed on our veterans. When we came back to Pine Ridge we were welcomed back and accepted and on top of that, honored. This relieves some of that mental anguish the warriors experienced. It's a mental healing,'' Steele said.

Architect for the memorial was Oglala tribal member Tammy Eagle Bull, and the OLC carpentry students built the structure. The veteran's statues were created by Oglala tribal member Randall Blaze.