Guardsmen in Montana unit are warriors of today who honor their American Indian past
By KEVIN DOUGHERTY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 27, 2005
HAWIJAH, Iraq — Their names alone invoke a past as vast as the Great Plains, a heritage as majestic as the Rocky Mountains that lie to the west, where the sun comes to rest and legends reside.
Look at a roster of the 1st Battalion, 163rd Infantry Regiment, and you will find surnames such as Black Elk, Heavy Runner, Chief and Headdress. They fight for a nation that, to put it mildly, wasn’t all that kind to their forbears.
Although many of the American Indians deployed to a U.S. Army base in northern Iraq said their focus was on the present and future, they talked about the past when asked.
“I come from a family of warriors,” said Sgt. Jeff Jackson, a Nez Perce Indian from Lapwai, Idaho. “I was told this by a tribe member. Yellow Wolf was my great-great-grandfather.”
Yellow Wolf, according to Web sites, fought in the Nez Perce War against the U.S. Army, which drove the tribe from its native territory in 1877 after a treaty dispute.
Jackson isn’t the only soldier with a legendary figure in his ancestry.
Sgt. Richard Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Indian, is related to Crazy Horse. Black Elk’s great-grandfather, a cousin of the famed chief, witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana, where Gen. George Custer and his men perished. In his later years, Nicholas Black Elk penned a critically acclaimed book on the battle called “Black Elk Speaks.”
“He was there to see it all,” Richard Black Elk said.
There are at least a dozen American Indians serving in the U.S. Army at a camp named McHenry near the city of Hawijah. The Montana National Guard heads the Task Force, but its American Indian soldiers hail from others states, too, such as South Dakota and Idaho.
Many are front-line infantry soldiers, while others fix vehicles or tend to the sick and wounded. Most are former active-duty soldiers carrying on a new family tradition — serving in the U.S. military.
Military service in Black Elk’s family goes back to World War I.
Sgt. Leon Milda’s uncles fought in World War II.
Staff Sgt. John Crawford has cousins who have joined the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
“My maternal great-grandfather served in the Canadian army,” Crawford said. “As far as I’ve been told, he went on the Boer War expedition [to South Africa], and everybody before that, well, they just fought the U.S. Army.”
Crawford couldn’t help himself; he had to snicker over that last part, not out of disrespect but at the incongruity of such a statement, given that he now proudly wears the U.S. Army uniform.
Pride was a theme that surfaced again and again in conversations with the American Indian troops. Spc. Wesley Headdress served three years on active duty before being recalled as a member of the Individual Ready Reserve. He since has re-enlisted, and said he might volunteer for another stint in Iraq after his current tour ends.
“Some of my best buddies are still on active duty,” Headdress said over breakfast one morning. “If they’re going to be deployed, I would want to be with them.”
Jackson, who will be eligible to retire from the Idaho National Guard next month, said he accepted a voluntary reduction in grade to make it easier for his unit to send him to Iraq. It was important, the 40-year-old said, “to come out here and be a soldier and help the young men survive.”
“It’s quite a bit of cash I’m losing,” he added, “but hopefully I will talk to somebody and they will reimburse me.”
The American Indian tribes the soldiers come from are as varied as the men themselves. The list includes Blackfeet, Chippewa, Choctaw, Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Lakota, Navajo and Nez Perce.
At McHenry, the unofficial leader is Crawford, who makes a point of periodically checking in on the soldiers, making sure their spirits are high and they have what they need.
Crawford believes he and other American Indians in Iraq have a bit of an edge over other U.S. soldiers whenever they venture into local communities, which, in many cases, are anchored by tribal affiliations.
“The customs are different,” Crawford said, “but I think I can better understand some of the interactions they have.”