Decades, even centuries, before civil rights were codified in the American justice system, minorities of nearly every conceivable origin fought with distinction alongside the bravest of soldiers in wars at home and abroad. Though military rank disparities and selective service draft inequities were once common reminders that the struggle for equality endured, minorities never ceased to heed the call to duty.
Among the most overlooked group of minority American soldiers are those who have lived in this land the longest. From the colonial wars pre-dating the Declaration of Independence to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Native Americans have a robust tradition of military service. In fact, according to a U.S. Navy report, American Indians have the highest per capita record of service of any ethnic group.
Some 200 American Indian veterans from the northern Nevada region will march today among the expected 3,000 participants in Reno’s Veterans Day parade. Many will be part of a regiment coordinated by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC), a procession that will also include a generation of young people who will honor the service of their deceased relatives.
Brian Melendez will carry a portrait of his grandfather, a World War II veteran and full-blooded Paiute, in today’s parade. It is a way for Melendez to pay respect to the sacrifice of his father’s father and all the fallen Indian fathers before him. Connecting with that succession and lineage of heroes resonates deeply with Melendez.
“It is a testament to our involvement in the American tradition,” he said.
Melendez, an RSIC councilman, also will commemorate Veterans Day with a teaching lesson in mind.
“I think (the parade) is a good opportunity for the tribal community to explain to others that we have participated in battle to achieve this country’s freedoms and to achieve a form of equality for all,” he said.
The values of pride, devotion and strength inherent in the warrior ethic of many native cultures contribute greatly to the historical legacy of American Indian military service.
“It is something that is inherited through all the generations,” said Lewis Lincoln, a 57-year-old Vietnam veteran and member of the Brown Valley Indian Tribe.
Drafted into military service, Lincoln said his voluntary re-enlistment while serving overseas was a natural result of wanting to follow in the footsteps of his father, a WWII veteran. His commitment also followed from the fact that native young people and elders alike look up to soldiers because of the warrior tradition instilled in American Indian communities.
For some American Indian veterans, the military was an instrument by which to improve their life prospects.
“In those days it was a dead-end street,” Rudy Calderon, a 76-year-old veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, said of growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley. “Either you worked in the fields or you didn’t work, and I didn’t want to do that anymore.”
Calderon said the military offered him an alternative to sparse job prospects and gang activity. His service in two foreign wars gave him a new perspective and an opportunity at a better life.
But life after wartime wasn’t always easy for veterans like Calderon, whose blood is of Apache Indian heritage.
Known as the “Forgotten War,” the conflict in Korea saw veterans return home with little thanks and appreciation. The social upheaval of the 1960s and the vast unpopularity of the war in Vietnam also spelled ingratitude for returning veterans of that era.
Calderon said that it was the efforts of his generation of veterans, however, that are responsible for the warm welcome home Iraq and Afghan war veterans receive in addition to the plethora of health services available to them.
“Finally, (veterans) are getting recognition for the things they have done,” he said.
There is a longing for this due respect among veterans of all races and ethnicities, but it is particularly poignant coming from American Indians, whose culture has been subject to historical depredation by the very government they have served in war.
“You wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the veterans,” said Grizz Hilpert, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran of Maidu Indian ancestry.
When Ira Hayes helped raise the stars and stripes on Iwo Jima in the final months of WWII, he gave a face to the long line of Native Indians that preceded him in American military battles. His immortalized image as one of six men to prop up the American flag represents a symbol of victory not just for the United States, but also for all native veterans and minorities that have soldiered forth since in the cause of freedom and equality.
“(Military service) is something for Native Americans to do because they love this country,” Hilpert said.