Event honors Vietnam-era veterans from Navajo Nation
A selection of quotes from interviews featured in the new PBS documentary film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, "The Vietnam War."
Ceremony takes place at Navajo Technical University
CROWNPOINT — Dozens of veterans from the Navajo Nation were commended for their service during the Vietnam era in a ceremony and lapel pin presentation as part of efforts by the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration.
The program, which operates under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, partners with veterans' organizations and communities to formally recognize and honor Vietnam veterans, many of whom faced criticism when they returned from serving in a war many people opposed.
The Navajo Nation Veterans Administration partnered with the program to hold the event at Navajo Technical University here on Thursday.
During the ceremony, each veteran was named before receiving a lapel pin that was attached to his or her shirt, jacket or military fatigues.
Two Grey Hills resident Jimmy Harrison Curley Sr. was among those who posed for a photo after receiving his pin. Curley was attending Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., when he enlisted in the Marines and was deployed to Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. He served in the 3rd Marine Division and was stationed near the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone.
Curley said he was blessed by a medicine man before he was deployed.
"I also thought about the (Vietnamese) people. They were not different than Native Americans. You see something they do that we do at home," he said. "There are other things I like to talk about, but I don't."
Curley and his wife, Eleanore Curley, were newlyweds when he left for the war, and she gave birth to their daughter, Jennifer, when he was in Vietnam.
"When you become a father, you know you have something to go back home to," he said.
In his opening comments, retired Maj. Gen. James T. Jackson, the program director, mentioned the fact that he had seen several veterans wearing apparel that reflected their military service, as well as medals and badges.
"No one gave them to you for free. Be proud, wear them with pride," Jackson said.
He said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that at least 500 Vietnam veterans die each day, and many pass away before they have been properly thanked for their service.
"Each of you deserve to hear that your nation thank you for what you've done. …You need to know that your service, years ago, was important to the nation," Jackson said.
He also asked the veterans to share information about the program and its effort to recognize every living veteran.
The program is also videotaping interviews with veterans, which will be complied, then housed at the Library of Congress in Washington. Jackson said that out of the 400 interviews collected so far, not many have been from Native Americans, and program officials are interested in recording those stories.
Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez said many Vietnam veterans and their families have waited many years for this recognition.
"We have been longing for this day," Nez said.
His remarks also reflected on the "sacred obligation" that arose when Navajo leaders signed the Treaty of 1868 with the United States.
"It was reciprocal because the Navajo people said that we'll help the U.S. government if they're ever in a bind, and the U.S. said they'll help us, as well," Nez said.
Many veterans took that "responsibility to heart" when they served in the military, he said.
Thomas Wagner, the cemetery program director for the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services, said as part of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam era, the department's office in Santa Fe has created a wall of honor. The wall displays photographs of the military personnel from the state who died in Vietnam, including 53 from the Navajo Nation, Wagner said.
He added there are more than 34,000 Vietnam veterans who reside in New Mexico, and the department has been recognizing their service, as well as the sacrifice made by their families.
"I thank you for your service, and as a fellow veteran from Vietnam, welcome home," Wagner said.
In 2007, Congress authorized the secretary of defense to conduct a program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The program recognizes living veterans who served on active duty in the armed forces, regardless of location, from Nov. 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975.
The inaugural event for the program took place on May 28, 2012, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
A second ceremony for Navajo veterans took place today at the Twin Arrows Casino Resort near Flagstaff, Ariz.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.