General Excellence: First Female Native American General Officer Honored in Her Home State
Retired Major General Rita Aragon did not plan to join the United States military, but with her back against the wall it began a career that achieved multiple firsts and adds an induction into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame on November 9.
In 1979 she was the mother of two young girls, a schoolteacher who had just received her master’s, and her husband was killed in a motorcycle accident.
“I had no child support and no health insurance,” Aragon, Cherokee/Choctaw, said. “I was working three jobs: I was working at McDonald’s, I was working as a church secretary, and I was working at the school—and I still couldn’t make ends meet.” A friend recommended that she look into the National Guard. “I went in with a master’s degree as an airman basic; I had no rank, nothing, but it was the greatest thing that ever happened to my life.”
She went on to become the first woman to hold her current position, Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs for the state of Oklahoma; the first female commander in the Oklahoma Air National Guard; and the first woman of Native American ancestry to become a general officer in the U.S. Armed Forces.
The irony is that though she is the first Native woman to become a two-star general her immediate family did not admit their heritage. “Growing up in Oklahoma, particularly in rural Oklahoma, in the 1950s, it was not the socially acceptable thing to do,” Aragon said. “I went to a couple of stomp dances, as they were called back then, but without any real understanding that that was my heritage.”
However, the local Native community has embraced Aragon. “Once I became known as the first woman of Native American ancestry to be a general, the Choctaws embraced me completely,” she said. “They have been great supporters and great backers of all the things I’ve gone into and done. I was also made an honorary [Citizen] Potawatomi because that’s the area I grew up in and I did a lot of things in the military. They do a great job of recognizing their veterans.”
As Oklahoma’s Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs, Aragon has been looking into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and says that while one in 10 American Indians serve in the U.S. military, they have significantly lower incidents of PTSD.
“We believe it’s because the tribes send them off and welcome them back and celebrate the fact that they are living the warrior ethos,” Aragon said. “Used to be, soldiers came home on ships, and they had a lot of time to spend with other military men. Today they fly them home and within 24 hours they are out of the military environment; they’re in their homes and their standing there going, ‘Whoa! Culture shock!’ And it floods in on them.”
Aragon sees the proliferation of American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts that popped up around the country after World War II as a healthy environment where veterans could connect with each other, talk through their shared experiences, and decompress. She sees chat rooms and social networks on the Internet as today’s version of the VFW hall, but still looks to Native culture for the tradition of celebration.
“Native Americans do a much better job at reinforcing that warrior ethos, in praising their warriors with dances and with different kinds of ceremonies,” she said. “Native Americans deal better with post-traumatic stress. They still have it, but they’re able to cope with it and deal with it much better because they’re so much more accepted by our society, meaning Indian society, as oppose to non-Indian culture.”
Aragon also notes that while World War II veterans did not always stand up for the Vietnam veterans when they came home, the Vietnam vets stand up for our young veterans coming home, and that support is critical to the mental well-being of warriors throughout history.
“I spend 80 percent of my current life still dealing with people in the military, veterans,” Aragon said. “My children are all grown, and I have 11 grandchildren. I try to make time for them, but most of my life is consumed with trying to make the life of all veterans more viable.”