TAHLEQUAH, Okla.—More than 170 United States military veterans gathered inside a reception room at the Sequoyah School’s Place Where They Play on September 3. The Cherokee Nation Veteran’s Affairs Office honored those veterans in attendance with food, gifts, patriotic songs and raffles of items such as Pendleton Blankets. Over the years, the service-oriented event has been one of the many activities that are a part of Cherokee National Holiday, which takes place during the Labor Day weekend.
“This is more or less just a good time,” said event organizer and master of ceremonies Rogan Noble, a Cherokee Nation Veteran’s Affairs Office representative. Noble said that he has personally been a part of the event for at least five years.
“Cherokees have always honored their veterans,” said Noble. “We’ve had warriors in every conflict that America has ever fought, even the War of 1812. They’ve always held an exalted spot in our tribe, and we want to keep that going.”
Veterans in attendance had a chance to hear guest speakers inform them about veterans’ benefits that include education, health, vocational rehabilitation and benefits for families.
Jim Becker, a public affairs officer for the Muskogee, Oklahoma-area Veterans Administration office, said that his office is in the process of giving second looks to denied Nehmer claims, named from a court case involving Agent Orange. Becker said that his office would have 6,500 claims completed in Oklahoma by October 1. At press time, Becker said his office approved 2,000 claims and had already paid $79 million in back pay. Nationwide, Becker said there have been 145,000 claims, with $2.4 billion being paid out to 89,000 veterans.
Becker also stated that in Oklahoma alone, $89 million is paid monthly for compensation, survivor benefits and disabled pensions, and that the Muskogee office serves as a national education call center, processing $3.5 billion is paid in veterans’ education benefits for 16 Western states.
Also speaking to the veterans was Matthew Tiger, a Creek Nation member who serves as a Tahlequah outreach counselor for the Tulsa Vet Center. Tiger said that he is in the beginning stages of forming a veteran support group in the Tahlequah area, beginning with approximately six people. Tiger said that he wants to have meeting times available for both day and evening, and that his group would be starting within two more months.
One of the veterans in attendance was Stephen Lee, a Cherokee Nation member who lives in Seattle, Washington. A U.S. Army Vietnam veteran from 1970-1971, Lee said he attended last year and wanted to see if he recognized anyone that he met.
Noble said that older veterans are dying at an alarming rate, with 30,000 World War II veterans dying each month. “Some of the guys that were here tonight won’t be back next year,” Noble said.
One of those World War II veterans in attendance was Creek Nation member Phillip Coon, 92, a prisoner of war under the Japanese and survivor of the Bataan Death March. Coon grew up in Okemah, Oklahoma where he was primarily raised by his grandparents, and eventually attended boarding school in Sapulpa, Oklahoma and Haskell in Lawrence, Kansas.
“I was a country boy all my life,” said Coon, who helped his grandparents with chores such as drawing water from a well and pulling in wood chips with his wagon. He said that he learned many values from his grandparents, such as not stealing. “What others have, that’s theirs,” Coon said that his grandmother told him.
When he joined the U.S. Army, he trained in the Philippines, where he learned to use a machine gun. As a child, his grandfather told him that the gun above the door “was not to play with,” Coon said. However, he said he enjoyed using a machine gun. “It’s kind of like a toy to me,” Coon said.
Coon would be one of the approximately 72,000 American and Filipino soldiers captured by the Japanese in 1942 and forced to march more than 55 miles, undergoing heat exhaustion, starvation, dehydration, and severe beatings at the hands of their captors. Death tolls from Bataan range from 7,000-10,000.
Alexander Mathews, a Pawnee survivor of Bataan interviewed by Indian Country Today in October 2007, said that Coon re-introduced himself to Mathews during the march.
“You know me. I’m Phillip Coon,” Mathews recalled Coon saying. “We were schoolmates up at Haskell.”
Coon said that the Japanese were actually his “Number Two Enemy,” and that snakes and pythons were his primary enemy during his time in the Philippines. Coon also attributed his survival during Bataan to not depending on his canteen during basic training, which made his body used to being without water for long periods of time.
“By the grace of God, people prayed for me,” Coon said, “and I came back.”