Piestewa honored as Native American Service Women's Exhibit opens

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WASHINGTON - The Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery hosted a Memorial Day gathering. The ceremony celebrated the opening of an exhibit about Native American servicewomen and paid tribute to Army Specialist Lori Piestewa. Piestewa is the only U.S. military female to have died in the Iraqi Freedom operation.

The event, which took place inside the memorial's horseshoe-shaped exhibit hall, began with an honor guard procession. Many gifts, including eagle feathers, blankets, a flute, and a dreamcatcher, were presented by different tribes and veterans groups to the Piestewa family. The Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, from Harbor Springs, Mich., gave $2,000 to the Piestewa Memorial Fund.

Lori's mom, Priscilla, her dad, Terry, her 5-year-old son, Brandon, and her 3-year-old daughter, Carla, were there. So were Lori's brother and sister, and several other relatives.

"The voices of Native American military women express courage, honor, and service." This is the text at the start of the exhibit. It covers a 20-foot niche along the memorial's sparse, glass-ceiling interior. Quotes from Native women who served in the U.S. Armed Forces appear beside more than 30 photographic portraits.

The women's statements show another side of military life. One woman remarked that military training was much like, and certainly no worse than, the Indian boarding school she had attended. A woman who was in navigation training a few years ago related her answer to a test question: "What readings would you use to plot a course between A and B?" "I'm Navajo," she joked with her instructor, "We only go by the stars."

An adjacent display contains five biographies emphasizing the diverse experiences of American Indian military women, including Piestewa's. One is an example of three generations who served. Evelyn Koteen Archuleta was in the Women's Army Corps in 1945. She used to encourage her daughter, Melinda, to join the military. In 1987, two years after her mother's death, Melinda enlisted in the Army "to find peace within." Her daughter, Melanie, followed the family tradition, joining the Air Force in 1993.

Shirley Chase, of the Navajo Nation, assembled the women's oral histories when she worked here last summer as a student intern. Lori Piestewa's story was quickly added by the curators in time for the opening.

The Piestewa family loaned Lori's Army uniform for the exhibit. The clothing is equal to any First Lady's gown you might find in the Smithsonian's costume collection.

Standing in a glass case by itself, one sees a light green short-sleeved shirt and dark green trousers, and a black felt beret. Lori was petite, and the uniform's small size gives it a delicate and feminine look.

The Piestewa nametag rests below the right shoulder. Two training badges pinned on the opposite side, one for rifle and one for grenade, are like pewter brooches.

On the front of the beret is the metal insignia of the 507th Maintenance Battalion. A red and brass colored square lies on a background of several white stars against a blue field. Their motto, semper paratus, means always ready.

A few feet away is a binder that lists all American Indian women known by the Women's Memorial Foundation to have served in the Armed Forces. There are 590 names to date.

Lori's page shows her date of birth (Dec. 14, 1979) and death (March 23, 2003). She was posthumously decorated with the Purple Heart and the National Defense Service Medal.

After the exhibit opening, a wreath laying ceremony took place outside, to pay respect to all American military women. Beneath overcast skies, Lori's family scattered rose petals into the circular pool at the center of the memorial. Days later the water had been drained, but rose remains could still be seen, red pillows against dark gray stones.