FORT LEE, Va. - As a soldier in Iraq, Theresa Blue Bird found the spiritual and mental strength she needed to survive the harsh conditions there.
Then, assisting in running a U.S. Army Departure Air Control group in Iraq, Blue Bird helped many of her Army brothers and sisters on their final journey to the United States.
As the soldiers left, Blue Bird burned sage and prayed for them, she said.
''Some of the men and women were mentally falling apart, just being there in Iraq,'' Blue Bird said. ''After I started burning sage and praying, I truly felt I had so much spiritual and mental strength hardly nothing bothered me.''
A retired jumpmaster and staff sergeant with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, the 42-year-old was honored recently in an exhibit in the U.S. Army Women's Museum at Fort Lee during American Indian Heritage Month. Blue Bird's exhibit remained open until Dec. 15 and will likely become part of a permanent exhibit at the museum once it expands, said Francoise Bonnell, museum education curator.
Still in Iraq, though unable to state her location, Blue Bird retired from the Army three years ago after 20 years of service and works for a contractor now.
As a soldier, Blue Bird fought in the Iraq war, participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom at Al Taquddum, Iraq, with the Task Force All American.
To honor Blue Bird for her service in the war, members of her Oglala Sioux Tribe from the Pine Ridge Reservation presented her with a warrior blanket in 2004 - an honor typically given to male members of the tribe.
''I didn't expect it, and I was standing up there and was listening to elders talking, and one elder introduced me to some senators,'' Blue Bird said.
The senators thanked Blue Bird for her services, and then the Oglala leaders presented her with the blanket, she said.
That warrior blanket, featuring a white buffalo calf on it, stretches across a mannequin of Blue Bird at the Army Women's Museum's exhibit.
''I cried when I received the blanket because I had many memories coming to me about when I grew up,'' said Blue Bird, whose father is a Korean War veteran. ''It was very, very honorable to receive it. When they pulled it out, I was floored.''
Blue Bird said her tribe presented her with the blanket because she held the tribe's name in honor. The white buffalo calf, she said, is honored by her tribe.
''When I was growing up, I always heard stories about the calf,'' Blue Bird said. ''To me, I take it as good news to the people. Take it and do wise by it. It's here for a reason.''
For the U.S. Army Women's Museum, part of creating the exhibit was preparing a mannequin that wears Blue Bird's uniform she wore in Iraq as well as using the mannequin to display her warrior blanket. Another panel in the exhibit provided specific information about Blue Bird, the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation and the symbolism of the white buffalo.
Bonnell said the museum wants Blue Bird's story and that of other American Indian Army women to be part of a permanent exhibit once the museum is expanded.
''Our desire was to capture Theresa Blue Bird's story and to present to the public a particular event in her life that was extraordinary,'' Bonnell said. ''I am very excited about meeting Theresa and learning more about her through our oral history program.''
From an educational perspective, Bonnell said the museum needs to have the materials in the archives so it can share the history of the American Indians to children, school groups and other visitors.
''What stands out most is the acknowledgment by her people for her service in the Army and by other veterans from her tribe,'' Bonnell said. ''It seems to be a special story because it touched her so much.''
As a veteran, Bonnell said she was proud to display Blue Bird's story.
Though still in Iraq, Blue Bird plans to return to South Dakota to live in the Black Hills.
''The training in the Army did so much to me for all these years that I would need to have help to reintegrate with my tribe,'' Blue Bird said. ''I miss it so much; I really do.''
A graduate of the Marty Indian High School in South Dakota, Blue Bird also attended college through the Upward Bound Program at the University of South Dakota and attended college at the Fayetteville Technical College in Fayetteville, N.C.
''I lived most of my life on the Oglala Sioux Reservation until I entered the United States Army when I turned 18,'' Blue Bird said. ''Some of the hard ways of growing up on the reservation helped me in the Army.''
In her small town of Allen, S.D., Blue Bird said she watched her people hitchhike to another town just to be able to buy the basics needed to survive; and she cried for her family when she was taken away to a Catholic boarding school from grades seven through 12.
Blue Bird, the daughter of Lenora Lamont-Blue Bird and George Blue Bird Sr., has three children, two daughters in North Carolina and a son in Georgia.
Through Blue Bird's Army experiences and current work in Iraq, she advises other American Indians to believe in themselves and know that there is a higher being out there.
Having retired from the Army, she would like other American Indian women to see the military as an opportunity to learn new skills that they can use to help their tribes.
''Don't be afraid, and always know you will be able to do it because of your cultural background,'' Blue Bird said. ''It was rewarding, challenging and fun.''
The U.S. Army Women's Museum is interested in collecting information and artifacts on Native women who served in the Army, but who may not think their stories are significant. To contact Bonnell or the museum, call (804) 734-4184.