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Time to Honor Native American Veterans

So it’s official: the code name for Bin Laden was "Geronimo." To refer to a terrorist like Bin Laden, whom some have compared to Hitler, with the name of an honored and respected Native American warrior is the ultimate insult to every Native American veteran who fought in wars for this country and who died defending it. What the hell is wrong with these people?

I have heard since the first day that this code name was revealed that some Native American Veterans say, “Oh, Native names are what the military uses for their operations anyway, no big deal.” Well, I think it is a big deal. It’s time for the military to start training their people to respect Native people and their sacrifices for this country. I am a Vietnam Veteran and there are thousands of us who served. It’s time our service and our contributions are recognized.

Here are just a few contributions of Native American Veterans to this Country:
•8,000 American Indians took part in WWI. Their patriotism caused congress to pass the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Since Native people were fighting and dying for this country Congress felt it only right to grant them citizenship.
•In WWII more than 44,000 Native Americans served with distinction in both the European and Pacific Theaters. More than 40,000 others left their reservations to work in ordnance depots, factories and other war industries. At that time there were only 350,000 Native Americans in the entire United States including women and children. Approximately 12% of the Native American population, or one third of all able-bodied Indian men served in WWII. This is the highest percentage of any racial group.
•Several hundred Native American women also served with the Women’s Army Corp, Army Nurse Corp and the Navy. Founder of the Women’s Military Museum, Brigadier General Wilma Vaught estimates that approximately 10,000 Native American women have served in the military with 2,700 currently serving.

Historically, Native warriors have made key contributions. For example, Native people contributed to winning WWII in a unique way. The Japanese were adept at breaking our codes and were winning battles because of it. It was imperative to winning the war that we have the ability to communicate with our forces without our messages being decoded by the Japanese. Native code talkers, the most famous of which were Navajo code talkers, used their language as code unintelligible to the enemy. While most codes were considered unusable after one day, these native language codes were never broken.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if assimilation of all the tribes were complete and all tribes spoke English only. Would we be speaking Japanese or even German today?

More than 42,000 Native Americans, more than 90% of them volunteers, fought in Vietnam. Native Americans see duty today wherever our armed forces are stationed. There are approximately 27,000 Native American currently serving in the military; 18,000 of those have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I know that during basic training trainees are lectured about other cultures and races. This type of training is required so that military personnel can receive some sort of understanding of other races and cultures in order to create effective teamwork. There needs to be some sort of orientation for basic trainees in all branches of the military that informs those trainees of the contributions of Native people. We as Native Americans have contributed the most per capita in service to the USA. There has to be a time and place for that service to be honored and recognized—and what better time and place than at the very beginning of basic training, for all branches of the service? This would not take an act of Congress, just an Executive order from the Commander in Chief. This is something that can be implemented immediately. It is time to honor Native Veterans and change that stereotype that is perpetuated by code names like "Geronimo." Geronimo was a fierce warrior for his people and his land. He was a true freedom fighter, not a terrorist to be compared or associated with the name of Bin Laden.

Believe me, we as Native Veterans have earned and deserve better.

Donna Loring is a former representative for the Penobscot Indian Nation to the Maine legislature. She served in Vietnam from 1967 through the Tet Offensive in 1968. She is a teacher and writer. Her book, In the Shadow of the Eagle: A Tribal Representative in Maine, was published in 2008.