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The Price of Free

What can I say? I was young. Seventeen when I volunteered for service and nineteen when I volunteered for Vietnam. At the time, I think I would have said that freedom isn’t free. I was young.

Not serving did not seem a live option. My dad served on a tin can in the South Pacific and later with occupation forces in Japan. My grandfather went to Cuba with the first Roosevelt, who turned out to be as nasty an Indian fighter as any who ever lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

While Indians serve in over twice their proportion in the general population, it was also not insignificant to me that an Indian ninth grade dropout had few ways to escape rural Oklahoma. Or that I had bought the bogus rationale for the Vietnam War hook, line, and sinker.

I thought that if the Vietnamese took Saigon today they would take Sausalito tomorrow and isn’t Sausalito pretty close to Tulsa? I had delivered, and therefore read, the Tulsa World and Tribune and the Oklahoma City Oklahoman and Times and I had no way of knowing there were no real newspapers in Oklahoma. I had to act on the information I had.

It never occurred to me that Saigon did not belong to us and we could not save Vietnam from the Vietnamese any more than we can now save Afghanistan from the Afghans.

These thoughts return unbidden whenever I look at my fellow geezers in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Temple, Texas. We’re all gray now, whatever color our hair started, and every one of those gray heads contains a unique story. We all had our reasons.

Part of my reason has to be the legacy of a warrior culture, but every Indian veteran has another legacy, too: the Indian wars, past and current. Sure as the sun rises, this column will provoke letters complaining about my service. How can I serve the colonizer while my relatives still live in poverty on the tiny scraps of land remaining to us? Do I understand an 80 percent unemployment rate on some reservations while the rest of the country whines about 9 percent?

Yes to all the above. The settler societies are what they are and part of what they are is criminal.

But any veteran will tell you we don’t fight for abstractions. We fight for the people around us. I remember interviewing one of the Navajo code talkers from WWII when he was aged approximately 80 and hearing the outrage in his voice when he talked about Pearl Harbor. It was even then scorched into his mind as if the Japanese Empire had attacked Tuba City or Ganado.

So I sit with the other geezers, white and black and Indian, as we wait for our numbers to be called like in Baskin-Robbins. But at our age, this is not about ice cream cones.

They call me in and a VA surgeon explains to me the risks and benefits of the surgery on my eye. He winds up the presentation offering to “pray for me.”

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Whoa. It didn’t sound that risky.

“Doc, I come to you for science—not superstition.”

He told me he had done a lot of successful surgery and didn’t believe he “could have done it alone.”

I’ve been thinking about the superstition aspect ever since. Can’t my own spiritual beliefs be called “superstition?” How would I feel if he “needed” to operate in a lucky pair of socks, like a baseball player’s “lucky underwear?”

Neither is the same thing.

I don’t intrude my beliefs on others, having been taught “the spirit world takes care of its own business.”

Items of clothing are not sentient beings with both a motive to harm and a track record of harming unbelievers. After that conversation, there is no way I could be equal to his other patients except by getting saved, which might make me a little more than equal.

Do I think he would hurt me on purpose? No way. But the existence of the human subconscious is a matter of fact, not superstition. If I am not saved, he can excuse himself for not saving my eyesight by citing the will of his Divine Helper.

Thinking this though, I get more scared rather than less.

My surgery gets put off because I flunk the EKG and now I must see a cardiologist. This gives me time to verify the several hundred dollars per eyeball this surgery will cost me after my civilian health insurance kicks in. And to write about what scared me away from the VA, which is generally a well-run outfit.

I’m going to pay a surgeon who will take personal responsibility for her work. The VA would do it for free, but sometimes free is too high a price.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at