COMMENTARY: No ordinary day for extraordinary people

by Nov 9, 2020OPINIONS





How do you thank someone for securing your freedom and way of life? How do you make someone feel special about their service in the military?

It is not a daily concern for most Americans. They have other things on their minds. Unless you have an active military service person in your family or a retired service member, most of your thoughts are likely on the orders of the day in your life. Except for maybe one or two days of the year. One of those days is Veterans’ Day. On Nov. 11 every year, the country has recognized those men and women who stand guard for America. 

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a long and proud history of military service. So many brave Cherokee people have sacrificed for country and community. Whether on the front lines or in the chow halls, everyone is a hero in their own rights. 

Folks like Lt. Lewis Harding, United States Navy-Retired who became a pilot during the Vietnam conflict era. “During his time in the military, Harding received various decorations and awards including: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Naval Reserve Medal, and the Presidential Unit Citation.  He was awarded a total of eight Air Medals for the 80 combat missions he flew.”

And Staff Sergeant Warren D. Dupree-NC Army National Guard-Retired, who served in three branches of the service and received multiple citations. He said, “I am very proud of being an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Everything I have ever done, in my military career reflects my pride in being a member of this beautiful people. I have never forgotten, nor will I ever forget that it is an honor and a privilege to be a member of this Tribe and I will never do anything to bring discredit to our people. When we do, we do our best because that is the way our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents taught us to be. We have a proud history of being warriors. When you take that oath when you initially enter into the armed forces of these United States of America, and you swear an oath before God, it doesn’t stop when you get off active duty, or you retire. It is life-long. You will serve and expect nothing in return. If you get a kind word or smile that is payment enough if it comes your way. You will do and give everything that you have to improve the quality of life for our people.”

And Jasper Thomas Garrett Jr, whose Naval service included being tapped for his decoding talent. “Once they realized Garrett’s talent for coding, they brought him to a special office to volunteer for Navy Seal training. He heard nothing for about two weeks, and then received orders to attend survival training on an island off the coast of San Diego. The next thing he was asked to do was attend ‘Top-Secret Crypto School’ and trained to become a communicator. Among the 360 or so men in the testing group, less than 20 were picked to go to this extra training. He was sent to Little River in Virginia for this. Something that made Garrett unique through this process was his Cherokee heritage. When he moved to the field, they tasked him with creating Cherokee specific codes with two other Cherokee men in the Navy. The other two were both from Oklahoma, and once they got passed a few of the differences in their vernacular, they were able to coordinate using the Cherokee names for plants.”

Then there is the late Major Donald Rose, United States Air Force-Retired.  This tribal member is “a veteran of the Korean War, Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He was born on the Cherokee Reservation in 1932 as the oldest of 12 brothers and sisters.  He attended the reservation boarding school through the 10th grade. In June of 1949, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the United States Air Force and began a 25-year career that helped fulfill his childhood dreams. After basic training at Lackland AFB, Texas and communications specialist schooling at Keesler AFB, MS., his first duty assignment was to the 1935th AACS Squadron at Bluie West One, Greenland in 1950. He flew numerous combat missions during the Vietnam conflict and was awarded the Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Medal, and numerous service medals.” Retired 

Major Rose stated, “I dreamed of flying airplanes. I dreamed of becoming a courageous soldier. I dreamed of finding a beautiful girl to accompany me through life. I dreamed of love, happiness, children, grandchildren, education, wealth, and a long life.”

And Eugenia Thompson, who is a United States Navy Veteran from the Painttown community. She served from December 1985 to January 1993. She was a Medical Specialist and Combat Medic while serving active duty from 1984 to 1987. She then served in the Army Reserve from 1987 to 1992. Eugenia received numerous decorations and awards including the Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, and the Navy Overseas Service Ribbon. 

And Specialist Glenda Squirrel, United States Army-Retired from the Painttown Community who was a Medical Specialist and Combat Medic while serving on active duty from 1984 to 1987. She then served in the Army Reserve from 1987 to 1992. SPC Squirrel said, “I enjoyed it and took pride in wearing the uniform. I wish I could have spent more time in the military.” She received numerous decorations and awards including the Army Achievement Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Sharpshooter Qualification Badge/M=16, and Driver Training Course Graduate. 

Also, the late Lieutenant Colonel Kina B. Swayney, United States Army-Retired, who served for 24 years and was a Combat Veteran in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. She achieved the highest rank of any EBCI woman in history.  She took the role of officer very seriously and related the difference between the rank and the responsibility. In an interview before her passing, she said, “The Officer title came when I was commissioned into the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant – the first college graduate and the first officer in our family. From that point on, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.  That day marked my designation as a commissioned officer, but the title of leader did not come with a designation or oath.  That title was earned through trust and confidence of the soldiers I was entrusted to lead as well as the officers and leaders over me.” 

Lt. Col. Swayney’s awards and decorations include: Defense Meritorious Service Medal, five Meritorious Service Medals, four Army Commendation Medals, Army Achievement Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, two Overseas Service Medals, Army Service Ribbon, and two Army Superior Unit Awards.

These are just a few examples of the amazing men and women who have served and are serving from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Each one, from the cook to the medic, from the aviator to the infantryman, from the sailor to the office clerk, served the cause of our freedom and safety. There is no small or insignificant job in service to country and community. 

At last year’s Veterans’ Day event, Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, who is a Marine Corps veteran stated, “Liberty and honor, hope, and freedom-these are powerful words that resonate at a visceral level within the heart of every human being. There are, however, amongst us those who are the keepers of the flame of liberty, those who understand the eternal value of this precious gift that we have been entrusted with. These are the warriors of our society. Not tyrants who wish to impose their will upon the weak, but selfless warriors who willingly place themselves in harm’s way that others might enjoy the opportunities that are afforded to those who have freedom. They do not seek praise for themselves. They do not wish to shine a light on their heroic actions. When honor is bestowed upon them, they simply reply, ‘I was only doing my duty’.”

In addition to a valiant and storied military career, Lt. Lew Harding has been the Commander of the Steve Youngdeer American Legion Post 143 in Cherokee for over 20 years. Like many other of our devoted tribal veterans, Lew continued his service to the community after retiring from the military. Our veterans have served after their tours of duty through community volunteerism and as elected officials and in public service positions. He has written many columns in the One Feather regarding one of his greatest passions: the health, well-being, and recognition of the community of tribal veterans. In 2019, on Veterans’ Day, Lew made the following statement, “This Veterans’ Day, we commemorate the service that you ladies and gentlemen have given to our country. We are so proud and we’re so grateful. Veterans served for the purpose of sacrifice and tolerance, of bravery and of discipline-the foundation stones on which our great country was built. Thank you to all the veterans, each and every one of you here. You are heroes. We love you and we appreciate you, and we will never, ever forget what you have done for us.”

We may only give small tokens of our appreciation for these warriors. A “thank you for your service” or “let me buy your meal” is what many of us can do. Some contribute or volunteer at veteran assistance organizations. I encourage you to find your way to honor them. It is the least we can do for our heroes. 

Editor’s note: Quotes and material in archival editions of the Cherokee One Feather were used in this commentary from reports authored by Scott McKie B.P., Jonah Lossiah, and Warren Dupree.