SAN DIEGO—The National Indian Gaming Associations Indian Gaming Trade Show and Convention kicked off during the evening of April 1 with the Chairman’s Reception, which this year honored veterans in a big way: the event took place aboard the USS Midway, a massive World War II-era aircraft carrier docked at the Navy Pier in San Diego Bay.
Dozens, perhaps, hundreds of veterans attended the event this year and all of them were presented with boutonniere’s as they made their way to the dinner tables spread out in front of the stage where the entertainment and speeches took place.
“This is really about honoring veterans tonight,” said Ernie Stevens Jr., the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. But in a turn-around honoring, three veterans and directors of the National American Indian Veterans honored him and his father, Ernie Stevens Sr. who was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War.
Don Loudner, Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, executive director of the NAIV, a nonprofit organization that advocates in Washington and nationally on behalf of all Native veterans, began the ceremony with a short speech. “All you warriors, all you veterans, stand up!” Loudner said. “Thank you for your service and welcome home. Thank you for providing us the freedom that we’re living today. As the national commander of National American Indian Veterans, it’s an honor for me to serve as your commander in Washington when you asked me to come in and provide input on the issues, concerns and needs of you people.” Turning to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was present, Loudner continued, “And believe me, Senator Campbell could tell you I don’t take the backseat to anybody because we earned those benefits, we earned them and we want to be served just like anybody else. I don’t need to tell you that American Indians served at the highest percentage of all ethnic groups in the U.S. Go way back as far as you want, we served. This is our country and that’s why we served.”
The attendees cheered and applauded.
Loudner, a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer, introduced his colleagues from the NAIV – James Overman, a retired U.S. Air Force Major and national director of marketing for NAIV, and Frank Ramirez, a retired U.S. Army Sergeant and NAIV’s national director of intergovernmental affairs. The three NAIV colleagues presented Stevens Jr. with an award plaque that included his photograph, a feather, a depiction of the Four Directions, and three acknowledgments that Overman read. The first honored Stevens Sr., who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1950-1954 as Staff Sergeant. He received the Korean Unit citation and the Korean Service medal with three battle stars. The second honored Stevens Jr., “a warrior leader for all Native Americans,” Overman said. The third listed the names of Loudner, Ramirez and Overman and their ranks in the military.
Loudner told Stevens that the plaque was for “your father and yourself for what you do and you’ve done for American Indian veterans. This is yours – hang it and be proud of it.”
Stevens teared up. “My father was one of the greatest veterans who ever walked the earth. I’ll accept this on behalf of my family and my wife’s family. My wife’s father has a purple heart and she takes care of it,” Stevens said. He said he had never heard about the citations and medals his father had received. My father never talked much about the war. All he wanted to do was serve his country.”
Stevens closed with a story about his grandmother, a 101-year-old woman who continues to live on her own. “She was raised by a Civil War veteran,” Stevens said. Overman stepped in to say that he knows Stevens’ grandmother “and she insists on me calling her ‘Mrs. Hinton.’ And why that’s precious to me – I called my mother from the time I was six years old until she passed ‘Mrs. Overman,’” he said.