A Tribute to Veterans
As the nation honors our veterans, I want to extend my gratitude and respect to all of our men and women who served this great country. Native Americans have a rich legacy of being warriors going back hundreds of years to protect our homelands.
When I joined the military in August 1969, the Vietnam War was not popular. At 18, I didn’t plan to go to college, so I enlisted in the Army. After taking a battery of aptitude tests that opened the door to aviation training, I literally went from high school to flight school.
The August sweltering heat of Ft. Polk, Louisiana added to the demands of eight weeks of grueling physical and psychological training designed to transform us into soldiers. After basic training we, (Warrant Officer Candidates) traveled to Fort Wolters, Texas to begin primary flight school.
Out of 60 potential pilots, I was the only Native American and after five months of intensive helicopter pilot training including one hundred hours flight time, twenty one of us survived and went onto advanced flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. At Rucker we received instrument training, and another 100 hours of training in the iconic Huey helicopter. I think of all us remember the familiar and welcome Huey blade sounds coming into a hot landing zone for an extraction!
In late October of 1970 I arrived in Vietnam. Nineteen years old and assigned to Charlie Troop, 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division at Phuoc Vinh with 360 days left on my tour, providing it did not get cut short!
I volunteered to fly Scouts at Charlie Troop and they readily accepted my offer. After getting flight time in a Huey, and about 40 hours in the front seat of a Cobra, I was now flying a LOH, Hughes 500. Our job was to team up with a Cobra gunship and perform hunter missions in our area of operations. We would fly out to an area of suspected enemy activity and I would drop out of altitude and fly at tree top level looking for enemy trails, hootches, and bunkers. All observations were reported to higher ups.
While gathering intelligence we often drew fire, which is when our Cobra would make his presence felt by rolling in on the area we took fire from and laying some rockets and mini-gun fire on their position.
During one mission in Cambodia we took immense fire, and I took a round through the back of my helmet. My crew chief was hit as well. Our Command and Control Huey swooped down and rescued my crew chief and took him to the hospital. He lived and returned to Iowa after he got out of the service.
There were many months, especially when fighting in Cambodia that we never knew whether we would live or die that day. We flew four to six days a week, and someone in our unit was being shot down everyday. You just didn’t know if it was going to be your day or not. But we had a mission to do and we saddled up that helicopter everyday and did our job. By the end of my tour, I had more than 900 hours of flying time, 600 of those flying Scouts.
Looking back, I see many lessons valuable to my leadership role now: paying attention to details, analyzing situations, working through situations and not losing your cool, and how to find the victory out of it all. Teamwork is key.
I didn’t know then how valuable these experiences would be to help me prepare for leadership later down the road. Combat teaches you how to respond under pressure no matter how tough it gets, and all the training we did for battle paid off when that first shot was fired. That training helped me overcome fear, and I use it today when we are fighting for our treaty rights and sovereignty.
When we came home from Vietnam, there was no welcome or celebrating; no one said thank you. Like many returning vets I had not turned 21 yet but spent some time drinking to numb myself and keep the nightmares away.
I found life as a commercial fisherman very suitable, living on the edge. Traveling to Alaska fishing salmon and herring was rewarding and fun as long as the storms didn’t get too big. Eventually the path led home to the rez, as it always does.
At home our veterans were honored the way Indian people do and that was healing medicine I needed. They showed respect and honored our warriors – that’s the good medicine all veterans deserve no matter what war. It made me whole again.
There were more than 40,000 pilots trained during the Vietnam War, and it was my honor to serve as a young pilot. I thank of all our Native warriors who have served in battles from World War I to Afghanistan defending our homelands; I raise my hands in the Salish way.
Native men and women have the warrior spirit. Through out history we have fought our battles and persevered whether that be the Little Big Horn, Sand Creek, and here in the northwest. Treaty rights and sovereignty are our battle calls.
Today and every day, let’s give our warriors the gratitude and recognition they deserve for serving our country. Native America’s rich legacy of warrior spirit is alive and growing.
Deep down we are all warriors and defenders of our people and homelands.
Mel Sheldon is Chairman of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington. He has been serving on tribal council since 1999 and currently on second term as Third Vice President for Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
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