SANTEE, Neb. – “I told my mother I just wanted a small family meal,” but that wasn’t to be.
Relatives, veterans, friends and community residents wanted to welcome Shannon Campbell, Iraq combat veteran home, Dakota style.
Campbell, a mother, daughter, head start teacher, and tank mechanic, served in Iraq for nine months and returned home where veterans of Vietnam conducted a welcoming and cleansing ceremony to help her deal with combat memories.
“I told her to keep her head under her helmet. I prayed that she stayed safe,” said Marie Runnells, Campbell’s mother.
Campbell, on active duty with the 3rd Infantry Division, the lead division that moved into Baghdad was in Korea before her transfer to Iraq.
The Iraqis were very curious about Campbell, they wanted to know what she was. They finally called her a Number One American. They became confused over the term Indian because of the East Indians, and Native American, so she became Number One American, Runnells said.
Campbell said the duty was harsh and she will have memories triggered by odors. The smell of burning wood will trigger memories for her, she said, and she may always remember the odor of human flesh decaying that she smelled everywhere.
“In Kuwait our squad leader went into the desert to take the temperature, it was 155 degrees. It’s like standing in front of a bunch of hair dryers. When you walked to the mess hall your ears would feel like they were burning.
“And you were scared when you put on your flak jacket to go on a convoy. You were afraid you would be shot at.”
Campbell said she was involved in an ambush in a small town on the way to Baghdad, but couldn’t remember the name of the town. She, and other trucks got separated from her convoy. She drove a 5-ton cargo truck loaded with engines and pulling a water buffalo when her portion of the convoy turned around, met up with other vehicles and were ambushed.
“We were separated from our Bradleys and other vehicles. We met this other convoy going in the opposite direction, that’s when they opened up on us. I couldn’t see where the shooting was coming from. It may have lasted 10 minutes, but it seemed a lifetime,” Campbell said.
She said there were trucks ahead of and behind her that had 50-caliber mounted guns that opened fire on the Iraqi military and squelched the ambush. “They opened up and were going to town,” she said.
“At the front of the convoy there was car that was crushed that contained an Iraqi family.”
Runnells said when she spoke with Campbell by phone while she was in Iraq she could hear gunfire in the background and Campbell would cut the conversation short and say she had to take cover.
For those reasons, and more, the Vietnam veterans of the Santee Sioux Tribe held the wiping of the memories ceremony.
In very emotional speeches, tribal chairmen Roger Trudell, Rick Thomas and Ron Thomas spoke of the plight of veterans as they welcomed Campbell home.
“I can relate to what you are going through. Today you have friends. Many times we came home to indifference and it makes me feel good to welcome you back,” Trudell said.
“As the day goes on you will feel a bit better, but the memories will be with you for a lifetime.”
The Vietnam vets said they did not have the advantage of the traditional welcoming ceremony when they returned as their ancestors were welcomed when they returned from battle. The modern version ended with Vietnam because of the conflict about the war here at home.
“How proud we are of our vets now. In the ’60s and ’70s we were afraid to go home. We couldn’t wear uniforms. We couldn’t let anyone know where we came from,” Ron Thomas said.
“We should have been proud to fight for our flag.”
Rick Thomas reminded the community that veterans fight for the American Flag because it belongs to the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota nations. “We took this flag at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. We are the only nation in the world to take this flag, it is our flag and America has not come back to retrieve it,” Rick Thomas said.
“This is what we need to do. We thank the Campbell family for bringing Shannon to us. It is important that we honor the people with food and prayers and songs, that will help everybody. It is important to do this while we are still alive,” Ron Thomas said.
Campbell was smudged with sage and given an eagle feather in a special ceremony. She was joined by her grandmother Amelia Campbell and her mother Marie and she held her two daughters throughout the ceremony that became very emotional.
“We have Shannon Campbell, she can now stand with us as combat veterans,” Rick Thomas said.
There are three members of the Tom Campbell Tiospaye now stationed in Iraq. The Santee community will give them a warm welcome when they come home also.
“I don’t know what it is like to have a son or daughter in combat,” Rick Thomas said.
“When I heard the first woman to be killed in combat was Indian I remembered Shannon was over there. Then I heard a woman was held as a prisoner, I again remembered Shannon was over there.
“Now she is a veteran of foreign wars. And this ceremony and celebration is what communities are for,” Rick Thomas said.
Campbell was greeted with a long line of well-wishers that brought out her very easy smile and also tears. The Vietnam veterans said that it would be only her and her family who knew what she went through, and that will take a long time to reveal. She will also remember the day she was honored and welcomed home by her community.
Campbell will now head to Fort Stewart, and in November be separated from the military and return to Santee. She will pick up where she left off. Campbell began working at the tiny Ohiya Casino a few years ago, than was hired to work in the Head Start Program to which she will return.
Campbell does not consider herself worthy of the celebration and ceremony, she does not consider herself a hero, but she was treated as one by her community nonetheless.
Young people were reminded by the veterans that if a person serves in the military, “Be a Dakota and hold your head high, be proud,” Rick Thomas said.
Campbell earned the right to be called a Dakota warrior through her courage, dignity, pride and humility, community members said.