Col. Joel Ward, a Cherokee Nation citizen, says we may not realize it but many real-life heroes walk among us every day, including the young soldiers under his command. Ward, 53, will be deploying to Afghanistan with the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team this summer in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. This will be his third deployment to a combat zone, after being in Iraq during the Gulf War and later in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. Ward has a total of 29 years of military experience and when not on active military duty he is a supervisor for the Tulsa Police Department’s Organized Gang Unit.
The 45th IBCT are also known as the Thunderbirds, and are represented by the red and gold unit patch designed by Native American artist Woody Big Bow in the 1930s. Currently the Thunderbirds are on active duty status and mobilized to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where they are undergoing administrative processing and training for their upcoming deployment. Ward assumed command of the 45th IBCT in 2010.
Ward grew up in Pryor, Oklahoma where he met his wife, Debbie, who is also Cherokee. Together they have three sons. He originally joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps while attending Northeastern State University.
“I decided to give it a try and liked it,” Ward said. “The Army has been good to me from the very first day. I left active duty because I wanted to live in Oklahoma. I joined the Oklahoma Army National Guard because I missed the Army.”
Ward stated that many of the skills he learned in the military relate to law enforcement and that is what originally drew him to his job with the Tulsa Police Department.
“Before I was mobilized I supervised the evening shift of the Gang Unit,” Ward said. “My partner was Officer Steve Sanders who is also Cherokee. The Gang Unit’s mission is to identify and arrest members of criminal street gangs that commit crimes. We focus on those gang members who commit violent crimes.”
During Ward’s almost three decades of military experience he said he has learned much about leadership, discipline and life. And he finds inspiration today in the young men and women he serves alongside.
“As a young Lieutenant I served with, and learned from, real life heroes who served in Vietnam,” Ward said. “The young soldiers I serve with today are my heroes now. Most Americans have no idea of the things they routinely do for our country when they go to Afghanistan or Iraq. Being around them keeps me young.”
During his deployment Ward says his job description is basically to be responsible for everything the 45th Infantry Division Soldiers do or fail to do.
“I try to put the right soldier in the right job and point in the direction we need to go,” Ward said. “After that I just hold on for the ride.”
It helps, he says, that there is such a strong work ethic among today’s troops.
“I can’t say enough about the young soldiers I command. They are the best! For many this will be their second, third or fourth tour to combat zones. They are motivated, ready to go, and take their training seriously.”
Ward says the support that Cherokee Nation provides for military service members is greatly appreciated, and the continued support of veterans is crucial.
“I am proud of my Cherokee heritage and I know that I am a descendant from warriors,” Ward said. “I believe that gives us an advantage not only in the military but in all the things we do. I always try to live up to our heritage.”