Native Village
Youth and Education news
Volume 1, November 2011

Why Native Americans fight and die for same US army that slew their ancestors

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Condensed by Native Village


New Mexico: Native Americans are, by far, the most represented minority in America's military. American Indians make up 1.7% of active duty forces --  twice as large as their proportion of the US population --0.8%.

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for almost 10 years. Between them the two wars have claimed over 6,000 lives. Many of the bereaved relatives come from small American towns where the burden of war falls in large numbers.

The post-9/11 wars have hit the Navajo especially hard.

The last time Virginia Jim spoke to her son Lyle Cambridge was on July 4, 2005:

Animated Gif Telephones (31)

"I'm just calling to tell you how much I love you," he said, speaking from outside Baghdad during his second tour to Iraq.

"I love you too," Virginia said. "Just be real careful, take care of yourself."

"OK, goodbye," Lyle said when the time came to hang up.

"Don't say goodbye, that's a word I don't like to use."

"OK Mom, I'll talk to you later.'

The next day at about 5pm, a white Jeep pulled up in front of the Jim house.

"The first thing that came to my mind," Virginia says, "was that my son was sick. But they had come to tell me that he had been killed in action. I didn't know how to react. I started crying: 'Not my baby! That's my only baby!'?"

Jim lives in Shiprock, a town of about 8,000 on the Navajo reservation.  Three soldiers from Shiprock have died in the wars. If you add in casualties from nearby Fruitland (200 residents) and Farmington (45,000), the number of dead rises to seven. Six were Navajo. 

Jim has watched the rising death toll with horror. "I don't know how to explain this," she says. "One after the other. You feel their pain, you know how they feel when they lose their child."

At times Jim is furious with the US military and its leaders for taking her son's life. But she quickly reminds herself of what Lyle always told her. "They are the ones who sign my cheque Mom," he said. "They are the ones who help me support my family."

This view of the military is prevalent on the reservation where work is in short supply.

"Many want the college benefits, others are out for some skill set they could use, as the economy is very bad in this small area," said recruiting officer, Sergeant Brandon Bowden.  "Quite a few are looking for jobs, with the unemployment rate so high."

As more young people from the Shiprock area enlist, those left behind must develop coping methods. Jim attends weekly meetings of Blue Star Mothers women with sons or daughters in the military in Farmington.

"We don't either support the war or want to ban the war, that's not what it's about,"  says Judye Sinclair-Liczel.  "We're here for each other. You wake up each morning and wonder where your child is, is he OK, is he in danger or not in danger. You worry, you rip your hair out, and you cry. Between my two boys there have been 12 deployments in 10 years, and they don't get easier. They do not."

Melissa Sharpe has a son in Afghanistan. Her voice cracks and tears roll down her cheeks when she speaks about him.

"The first time he came back someone said you can breathe again, and I said that's exactly what it's like," Sharpe said.  "It's just a burden, on me, and it's heavy, and I'm worried all the time. It's a pall on you constantly, and when they come back it just lifts."

Sergeant Lee Todacheene, 29, from Farmington
Thought to be first Native American killed in Iraq. Hit by mortar fire at guard post in Balad in April, 2004.
Corporal Lyle Cambridge, 23, from Shiprock
Cambridge, a Navajo, was killed by improvised explosive device near Baghdad in July, 2005.
Sergeant Clifton Yazzie, 23, from Fruitland
From a Navajo family with a strong military tradition. Killed by a bomb on patrol in Huwija, Iraq, in January 2006.
Sergeant Marshall Westbrook, 43, from Farmington
A Navajo, Westbrook, was killed when his Humvee hit an IED near Baghdad  in October 2005. His brother, Kenneth, died in Afghanistan four years later.
Staff Sergeant Kevin Roberts, 25, from Farmington
Killed by an IED while patrolling in a Humvee in Sabari, Afghanistan, in May, 2008.
Sergeant Troy Tom, 21, from Shiprock
Died in Arghandab, Afghanistan, after stepping on an improvised bomb in August, 2009. His father is a member of the Navajo Nation Council.
  Sergeant Kenneth Westbrook, 41, from Shiprock
Died in a Washington hospital in November, 2009, three months after being injured in an ambush in Ganjgal valley, Afghanistan. He was a month away from retirement after 22 years in the army.

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