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Vets Seek to Honor and Be Honored by Bald Eagle

Two Vietnam War veterans are hoping that Wisconsin’s statewide observance of American Eagle Day on Friday, June 20, will become an annual event honoring veterans at military posts through the country.

Jim Overman, a citizen of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, and Larry Kutschma, a member of the state’s Board of Veterans Affairs, and past Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) State Commander, took the first step toward their goal by asking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to issue a proclamation declaring June 20 American Eagle Day throughout the state of  Wisconsin. The date is significant: It was on June 20, 1782, that Congress proclaimed the bald eagle as America’s national emblem.

The proclamation was Overman’s brainchild and Kutschma implemented it.

“Initially, the request was made to the Board of Veterans Affairs by Jim Overman in April asking for this proclamation and I as a board member took it up,” said Kutschma, who served in Vietnam during the famous 1968 Tet Offensive. At the beginning of June, Kutschma submitted a draft of the proclamation to Walker’s staff and an official proclamation was issued this week.

In a series of “whereas” clauses, the proclamation says among other things that the bald eagle’s “image, meaning and symbolism have played a significant role in the beliefs, traditions, lifestyles, and heritage of Americans from all walks of life.” It describes the bald eagle as representing the “American values” of “freedom, courage, spirit, strength, justice, quality, and excellence.”

The proclamation will be the centerpiece of a ceremony at the Oneida Tribe’s VFW Post 7784, Kutschma said. Gov. Walker will not be able to attend the event due to a prior commitment, he said.

“My objective is to share this proclamation on June 20, 2014 at festivities at the Oneida Tribe’s VFW Post 7784 which has invited the National Congress of American Indians President and other guests to not only honor this proclamation but to also set this as a precedent to all of the national VFW posts and service organizations as a moment to reinforce and recite our oath of obligation to our nation when we raised our right hand and were sworn into the service of our country,” Kutschma said. “Namely, myself and many others, believe the strength inherent as an emblem in the bald eagle has been instrumental toward the comradeship experienced in the midst of trying circumstances,” he said, referring to circumstances in a war zone.

Overman said the connection between the bald eagle and veterans – warriors – is ancient and ongoing.

“The warrior culture that existed among Native Americans before 1492 respected, even revered, the eagle – it’s always been part of our culture. I am Native American and in 1492 before things changed the American bald eagle was our symbol as Native people and that was well known,” Overman said. “When the Founding Fathers created the new nation’s Constitution they based on the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Great Law of Peace. I really believe that George Washington had this idea, ‘I’ll just make it (the eagle) ours right now’ and that way everybody could claim it whether you’re Native or not.”

Overman, 81, spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force and retired in 1972 as a major. He remains the highest decorated Native American fighter pilot in the Air Force, having received three Distinguished Flying Crosses and 18 Air Medals.

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He also thinks “a tremendous disrespect” is finally going to be resolved with the event at the Oneida VFW.

“There’s a long history of injustice born of disrespect toward veterans because of what our society is,” Overman said. “Once in a while they throw some stuff on the water for veterans – we have a war and we’re the center of attention, but right after the war we’re right back to being ignored.”

Overman’s critique comes as the Department of Veterans Affairs is mired in scandal with the revelation that more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting at least three months for a doctor’s appointment and another 64,000 never even made it onto a waiting list. There are also allegations that waits for care either caused or contributed to veterans’ deaths according to the New York Times.

Overman has become an activist in promoting respect for veterans. In 2012 he started a program with the Milwaukee Brewers called Recognition Equals Respect in which veterans are brought onto the field and honored at the beginning of games.

To correct that injustice of 232 years, Overman said his vision is to have the governor of Wisconsin declare the American bald eagle as the state bird and to promote American Eagle Day as an annual event of honoring and remembrance.

“On June 20 veterans will go to their posts and do two things: they’ll take the oath of office again and they’ll remember who was with them that day,” Overman said. And he wants educators to do more.

“I want leaders in this country to get the Department of Education to teach our kids – my God, if we can teach them about 1492 and the guy that got lost, we can teach them that the bald eagle is the national emblem and why.  This is how we’re going to respect veterans – with our national emblem.”

There is a good chance that Overman’s vision will become reality. “Jim and I see this year’s event as the genesis of a national day of honoring,” Kutschma said. “Next year when the window opens at our VFW to submit resolutions to our national bylaws I’m going to write up a resolution to have the national assembly consider naming June 20 American Bald Eagle Day annually.”

The American Eagle Foundation has been lobbying in Washington to make American Eagle Day a national holiday.

“We’ll be on board with that,” Kutschma said, “but for now we just asked the governor to make this proclamation for June 20 as a day of respect and reverence and consideration for the bald eagle as our national symbol.”

Jennifer Irving

The sign for the Akicita Owicahe Lakota Freedom Cemetery recognizes three tribal presidents, the initial project staff, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for their efforts.

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