What’s Memorial Day for? The warriors, not the countries. A Nooksack Vietnam war vet’s story
Last November I attended a fundraising event for the planned National Native American Veterans Memorial at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It was the Thursday before Veteran’s Day.
Inside, the museum was dark, like a nightclub, and members of the waitstaff zoomed in and out among the gathering handing out fluted glasses of wine. The men in attendance wore suits and the women wore striking evening attire.
I wandered around, sampled the hors d'oeuvres, and located the man who designed the planned memorial, Harvey Pratt, Cheyenne/Arapaho, a Southern Cheyenne Peace Chief and artist from Oklahoma. He was a friendly guy, easy to talk to, a former marine who had served in Vietnam from 1963 to 1965. I took a picture of him and his wife Gina and made arrangements to interview him later. My article about him and his beautiful, innovative design will be out soon.
The event began with the Smithsonian Honor Guard bringing in the colors, after which the museum director, Kevin Gover, made some opening remarks. I had never been to an Indian gathering that didn’t begin with a song and a prayer and maybe an Indian dance. I had certainly never been to one where alcohol was served. I felt out of place in my cargo pants and sneakers there among the governors and lieutenant governors of various tribal governments.
I listened as Director Gover described how they had already raised $6 million for the $15 million memorial, which is scheduled to be dedicated on November 11, 2020. Gover acknowledged the many tribal and non-tribal guests in attendance, which included representatives from the BNSF Railway Foundation, the Bank of America, and Northrop Grumman.
I began feeling uneasy. Right there in the Potomac Atrium of the National Museum of the American Indian, bathed in blue mood lighting, eating crab cakes and listening to the speakers talking about the importance of the planned memorial, I began thinking about my friend Robert Jimmy and a story he told me about his service in Vietnam and a firefight he was in that nearly ruined his life.
War in the jungles of Pleiku
The war was going strong when Robert, a member of the Nooksack tribe, arrived in Vietnam in 1969. He remembers his plane received enemy fire when it landed.
He had trained as a Field Radio Mechanic, a repairman basically, and later became a radio operator transmitting and retrieving secret codes between his base at Pleiku and headquarters in Saigon.
One day he was walking point with his squad in the jungle outside Pleiku Air Base. It reminded him of the forest back home on Bainbridge Island in Washington where he grew up. As a boy, he loved playing war with his cousins. The lush, green rainforest of Bainbridge Island looked very similar to the jungles of Vietnam.
As he marched, rifle in hand, he began thinking he was back home on the island, playing with his cousins. Then Robert spotted a man walking toward him. The man smiled. Robert saw the man’s brown skin and round face and thought at first it was one of his cousins playing war the way they used to.
A microsecond later, Robert awoke from his reverie and realized he was not on Bainbridge Island playing war. He was in a real war and this man coming toward him was a North Vietnamese soldier who meant to kill him. Robert opened up on him and the man went down. Suddenly the jungle was ablaze with gunfire as his squad engaged in a firefight with an enemy patrol.
The aftermath of the killing
Robert didn’t think much about the man he killed that day in the jungle, at least not while he was still “in country.” But things were different after he returned home.
“I took a Greyhound bus from Fort Lewis to Seattle. The last leg of my journey home was to take the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island,” he said. “And I swear, I got beat-up three times just walking between the bus station and the ferry terminal.”
Robert didn’t fight back against the street people who taunted him. He learned in the army that sometimes you have to “take the blows.” It’s part of being a soldier. Robert finally stumbled into a bar near the ferry terminal.
“The Bartender said, ‘You don’t look old enough to drink. But since you just got back from Vietnam and seeing how you’re bleeding, I’m going to buy you one myself. Here you go!’”
Robert escaped into the alcohol and hid there for years. He didn’t talk about his experiences in Vietnam because he felt ashamed and also because no one ever asked him about them. The alcohol seemed to dull the pain at first, but then it only made things worse as he recalled things from the war, in particular, the smiling face of the Indigenous Vietnamese soldier he killed.
Saved from suicide
Robert recalls one night in the mid-eighties when he was lying drunk in an alley in South Tacoma playing Russian Roulette.
“I had a six-pack and I’d take a can, crack it open and slam it, drink the whole thing. Then I’d spin the cylinder of my revolver, put the barrel to my head, and pull the trigger. If it didn’t go off, I’d slam another beer and try again.”
Robert blacked out and doesn’t remember exactly what happened after that. He just remembers waking up at his mother’s house the next day. He was slightly bruised and his mom told him that his cousin René Satiacum had found him in the alley and brought him home.
“I guess I didn’t want to go, so she had to get rough with me. That’s where my bruises came from. She was a pretty big woman,” he remembered.
Robert’s mom took him in and cleaned him up. She brought him to a Native American Church peyote tipi meeting where he took the sacred peyote medicine and learned how to pray.
“That’s when I became an Indian,” he said.
Robert credits his mom with saving his life. She pulled him up, taught him to be proud of himself, encouraged him, and introduced him to other members of the church.
“She’s a veteran, too,” Robert told me. “Wars don’t end when people come home. Sometimes that’s when the worst battles happen, and my mom fought many of those battles with me.”
The Veterans Administration did little to treat Robert's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was his mother who helped him heal. She taught him to forgive himself and even to forgive the enemy he fought in Vietnam.
Not long ago, Robert was in a restaurant with his family when a man saw his Vietnam Veteran cap and asked if he’d been in Vietnam. Robert turned around, ready for a confrontation, and saw a Vietnamese man smiling at him.
“The man said, ‘I was there, too. Only I was on the other side.’”
The man extended his hand to shake, but Robert didn’t take it. Instead, he held his arms out and the two hugged.
“That’s what Memorial Day is for,” Robert later told me. “It’s for the warriors, not the countries, not the politics. It’s for the warriors who fight in other countries and the warriors who fight back home, like my mom. It’s for the warriors we fight beside and the warriors we fight against, the ones still alive and the ones who have fallen. It’s for me and for that soldier I killed.
“It’s for him, too,” Robert said.
Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.