Many Native American teenagers are planning their future and want to make a difference—I believe that. The Native American people have—time and again—answered our nation’s call when it comes to serving in many capacities and that includes the call of service in the military. Many young women and men will serve in the various branches and willingly do so without hesitation—and they serve for a variety of reasons.
U.S. Army Sgt. Lee Duane Todacheene, Navajo, served so he could provide a better life for his wife, Jackie, and their two sons. Jackie told me he was a great father, deeply loved his sons and was an affectionate husband who called her “my little wife”. He was the love of her life. This was during an interview in 2004; after word came that he was killed in Iraq.
Under a hot Arizona sun, on an August afternoon of that same year, I went to the door of the family of Army PFC Harry N. Shondee, Jr. I remember the quiet of the Ganado, Ariz., afternoon and the brilliant turquoise blue of the sky as his father, Harry N. Shondee, Sr., came out to speak with me. He said his son joined the Army so he could use the college benefits to attend the University of Arizona. He wanted to major in architectural engineering. The father said his son told his parents that the first thing he was going to do was build his parents a “really nice house.” All those dreams ended when he gave his life near Baghdad, Iraq.
Marine Lance Corporal Keith A. Quinn, Navajo, was a brother, son, grandson, nephew, and friend to many, many people. Quinn served right out of high school and when he passed away in September of 2004 while fighting in Iraq, an entire elementary school in Blanding, Utah lined up on Main Street to say ‘goodbye’…and ‘thank you’ as the hearse drove down Main Street. I went into the school to interview the principal, but was greeted at the entrance by a group of six teachers and principal surrounding one teacher who was crying very hard. They were all sobbing along with her. The teacher was Quinn’s second grade teacher. She told me he was a quiet kid with the “greatest smile”. And he loved Navajo tacos.
The following year in 2005, I remember standing in the Veteran’s Cemetery in Fort Defiance, Ariz., as the friends and family put to rest Marine Lance Corporal Kevin Joyce. This young Navajo man was so eager to serve that he did not walk during his high school graduation because his date to leave for boot camp came prior to his graduation day. He did not mind at all, according to family. He served because he wanted to be one of the “Few and the Proud.”
A month later in July 2005, Army Corporal Lyle Joe Cambridge gave his life on Iraqi soil leaving behind his wife Evonne, two small sons. I went out to the home to interview the family. In the course of an afternoon, many people stopped by or called to offer their condolences. The family invited me to sit with them awhile. His mother Virginia excused herself briefly to make a quick run to the post office a few miles away. She returned quickly and walked into the house, her face wet with tears and holding one last postcard from her son that just arrived that day in the mail. The delay in mail caused it to arrive a week after he died. Then, in the beginning of 2006, the Navajo Nation brought home another Army warrior.
Army Specialist Clifton J. Yazzie died in January and left behind his high school sweetheart, Michelle, and two young children. Yazzie was killed in Iraq and his loss was devastating for his family, friends, and community where he was incredibly popular. I remember during the funeral, his high school basketball coach shared how phone calls from Yazzie came intermittently from Iraq. Sometimes the phone would ring at 2 a.m. They would talk for a few brief moments and the coach said Yazzie “never complained” and would mention how he missed his wife and family. The siblings also spoke and I remember the sound of their voices filled with emotion and great love and pride.
There are many other Native Americans that gave their life: Army SPC Clint Lamebear, Army SPC Lori Piestewa, Army PFC Sheldon Hawk Eagle, USMC CPL Bernice K. Yazzie, Army SGT Marshall A. Westbrook, Army Sgt. Troy O. Tom and Marine Lance Corporal Alejandro J. Yazzie…
So many men and women gave their life so that today I am able to live safely and with freedom and democracy. These Native American warriors gave their life and saying “Thank You” doesn’t even begin to honor them. There is no amount of money or honor I could give them, or to their families for raising such amazing people. Their courage and selflessness is immeasurable. This Veteran’s Day I ask that each one of you remember them, and to remember to thank a person serving—past or present—in the Armed Forces for giving us a life that those who died wished they could have lived.
Valarie Tom is a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and is an awarding-winning journalist for her work in magazine, print and television. Tom has taught in college and currently teaches mass communications in high school in Phoenix, where she resides.