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White Swan Mourns, Honors Son Who Died in Afghanistan

WHITE SWAN, Wash. – Flags fluttered in the breeze as the government-chartered plane landed at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, May 2 at Yakima Air Terminal and family members and an honor guard stood by, ready to receive the body of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joe Michael Jackson. It was a day when most Americans were celebrating the news that Osama bin Laden—the leader of Al Qaeda and the diabolical catalyst for the war in which Jackson, 22, gave his life—was dead. But that news couldn’t lift the sadness of this day for them.

Over three days of memorial services, they told stories about a loved one whose tenacity in boyhood had evolved into great courage in adulthood. They remembered how he loved to camp and fish and attend pow wows; that he played the flute and guitar and did Native beadwork. They remembered how the young man now lying in the flag-draped coffin enjoyed playing sports even if he didn’t make the school team, how he taught himself martial arts by watching Bruce Lee videos, how he always seemed to smile through adversity.

This was a young man who, while attending White Swan High School, was actively involved in Students Against Drinking and Drugs, and did the artwork for one of its national ad campaigns. For his senior project, he remodeled his grandmother’s home. And now, the town of White Swan, which had prayed for its favorite son as he served with Company A, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, mourned as a decorated war hero returned home for the last time. “The greatest man I ever met was my son,” said Shawn Marceau, Jackson’s foster father and a Marine veteran.

Services were held from May 2 to 4 in the gym at White Swan High School, from which Jackson graduated in 2009. Wednesday morning, May 4, the funeral procession began. It took the two-mile-long funeral procession more than an hour to deliver Jackson’s remains to Tahoma National Cemetery. “It required the interaction of seven law-enforcement agencies,” says 1st Sgt. Michael Lillie, United States Marine Corps, who assisted the family from the time of notification up through the burial. “There was a full Yakima Police Department escort. We didn’t stop for one light; the streets belonged to Lance Cpl. Jackson. It was pretty amazing.”

Jackson was Gila River Indian but was raised on the Yakama Nation reservation by Blackfeet/Yakama foster parents; his family said he shared the same bloodline as Iwo Jima flag-raiser Ira Hayes. He reported for Marine Corps basic training on October 13, 2009, and after graduation his unit arrived in Afghanistan March 26 of this year; he died April 24, killed by an improvised explosive device while helping to clear a trail of mines on a steep slope in Helmand Province’s Sangin District.

His sacrifice is yet another tale of the battlefield courage of American Indian soldiers in what was once called America’s War on Terror. Spc. Lori Ann Piestewa, Hopi, was killed in Iraq on March 23, 2003, the first American Indian woman in history to die in combat while serving with the U.S. military. Eight years later, Jackson died as American forces were closing in on bin Laden in nearby Pakistan.

Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, told the Associated Press on May 3 that 77 American Indians and Alaska Natives have died defending the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan; more than 400 have been wounded. “Joe’s final rank attained in service was lance corporal, and he was considered to be a warrior by his fellow Marines, both senior and peers, and his battalion mourns his loss,” the family wrote in his obituary. “Joe was killed by the enemy in a foreign country but was never alone. He was amongst friends when he died and has been escorted home by a fellow Marine every step of the way.”

Among Jackson’s military decorations: a Purple Heart; Afghanistan Campaign Medal, with a Bronze Star; Combat Action Ribbon; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; Good Conduct Medal; National Defense Service Medal; NATO ISAF Afghanistan Medal; and a Sea Service Ribbon. His sacrifice was honored by the governors of the state of his birth (Washington) and the state where he was stationed (California). Gov. Christine Gregoire, D-Washington, ordered flags lowered to half-staff at all state buildings May 3. Gov. Jerry Brown, D-California, ordered flags flown at half-staff over the California State Capitol that same day.

At Tahoma, Rear Adm. Darold Bigger of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps presided over Jackson’s service, which was attended by about 500 people, including U.S. Marines, people from the Blackfeet, Gila River and Yakama nations and reporters from newspapers, radio and TV. After Bigger spoke, a condolence letter from Jackson’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Thomas B. Savage, was read. The microphone was then open for people to eulogize Jackson. After that, the uniformed honor guard folded the four U.S. flags that had draped his coffin and presented one each to Jackson’s fiancée, biological mother, biological father and foster parents. A bugler played “Taps” and a 21-gun salute was fired.

After the coffin was lowered into the ground, Yakama Nation veterans circled the grave, followed by Marines and family members and then others. One by one, mourners dropped handfuls of soil, flowers or eagle feathers into the grave as they bid farewell to a friend, a loved one, a hero.

The outpouring of love comforted Jackson’s family. “It’s hard enough, but we took pride in the fact that he wasn’t alone, that we honored what he has done,” Marceau said. “We send our boys off to fight and sometimes this is the result. He could have been buried at Arlington with Medal of Honor recipients and presidents,” Marceau said of his son. “He came from humble beginnings and he was honored at the highest level.”