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Native Americans in the Military

by Nicole Tung
April 13, 2018

Michael Sankadota stared straight ahead from the sofa with wide eyes open, his face dimly lit only by the light of the television. He tried to relax as electrode pads sent out gentle pulses – to help with his intense migraines – from the base of his neck. His wife, Nikki, glanced from the TV to Michael, and then checked to see where each of their four children were. 

Both husband and wife do not work, as Mr. Sankadota is 100% disabled and is cared for by his wife. Together they have four children. Mr. Sankadota, a veteran of the Iraq war, suffers from severe migraines as a result of traumatic brain injury, sustained from multiple explosions near his convoy while on tour there. He grapples with both physical and mental pain on a constant basis and wishes he could function better, but he just can’t.

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On this particular weekend, he is excited for one thing though: the ‘Ton-Kong-Gah’, or the Black Leggings Society of the Kiowa tribe, were going to gather for their annual ceremony and Michael would be inducted as a new member. The ceremony, over 300 years old, remembers those who have served in the armed forces in various foreign wars.

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It is a tradition that is almost as old as the tribe itself, and is different from other veterans societies in the way their veterans are remembered – and revered – from their dress, to their dances. Over a weekend in the fall, new members are initiated whilst older members lead the way, and the community of the Kiowa tribe come out to remember those who served.

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Michael would be initiated this particular weekend and he had some preparation to do, including building a teepee, which ordinarily wouldn’t be difficult. But on a grey Friday afternoon, he struggled with the physical activity as his migraines grew worse throughout the day. And yet he pushed through because of how proud he felt about becoming the Society’s newest member. “My kids will look at me different, like, daddy’s this now, he’s a part of something bigger’’ he says, “and it feels a lot bigger than just what I am as a veteran.”

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Michael is but one of the hundreds of thousands of American Indians who have served in all capacities in the U.S. military, and the numbers of those who have served in combat are especially high. There are approximately 31,000 Native Americans currently on active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other foreign countries and over 18.5% of American Indians served in the post-9.11 conflicts.   

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Native Americans are the largest minority group to serve in the U.S. military, but they are among the least served when they return home, especially if they live in remote communities. Many combat veterans suffer from symptoms of posttraumatic stress, but are rarely ever diagnosed and have difficulty accessing counseling even if they are diagnosed because of logistical problems. Some have cited racism as an obstacle to help as well. To make matter worse, disability benefits often take years to be processed, compounding the lack of resources available to veterans.

Many also don’t have the kind of tight-knit communal support that Michael does, but that doesn’t mean they have not tried to forge their own path in overcoming the trauma they experienced or helping others do the same.

One state away in Pueblo, CO, Mitchelene Big Man prepared her jingle dress for a performance with her Color Guard. Big Man, who started the Native American Women Warriors, an organization aimed at raising awareness about female veterans, and women Native veterans in particular, is a retired Sergeant First Class of the U.S. Army and served in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

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Her experience as a combat veteran, and as a sexual assault survivor in the military prompted her to use traditional dance as a way of healing the wounds of trauma, and has enlisted dozens of other Native American women too, where they dance at powwows and represent the face of women in the military.

We’re trying to get recognition for the Native American female veterans, Big Man said. A lot of people think we don’t exist in this country anymore, but we are here and we also serve in the military.

On the other side of facing war and returning home are the families who often have to deal with the fallout of PTSD. Latonya "Tasha" Johnson, 35, still grieves over her former husband, Staff Sergeant Lonnie A. Watts. Mr. Watts was deployed to Afghanistan after the start of the US-led invasion with the 82nd Airborne, an airborne infantry division and was later deployed to Iraq in 2005.

Ms. Johnson believes that her husband, whom she met after he returned from Afghanistan, was deeply affected by what he'd experienced in combat there, but refused to seek help or counseling to get diagnosed with PTSD because it was something "[he] was not proud of,” she said.

Mr. Watts turned to alcoholism to deal with the trauma and according to Ms. Johnson, always needed an adrenaline rush. Ms. Johnson says she wishes her husband could have sought counseling so that he would be alive today to help her raise their five children.NTUNG NativeVeterans 08

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    "PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault..."
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