By NATE PEREZ, Casper Star Tribune
CASPER, Wyo (AP) — Decades before becoming an Eastern Shoshone leader, John St. Clair was a soldier fighting in Vietnam.
The Project found St. Clair in 1966, and although he survived the war, he returned with post-traumatic stress disorder, although he didn’t realize it until many years later. .
When St. Clair and other soldiers returned to the Wind River Reservation, many did not identify themselves as veterans due to stigma. They were met with protests and were shunned. Many people assumed that every soldier who fought in Vietnam agreed with the government.
“That wasn’t true at all. I was drafted, but we had a choice after being drafted,” he said. “Are we going to Canada or are we doing what we were recruited to do? Most of us, especially aboriginal people, went ahead and went to the military.
Like many Aboriginal soldiers, St. Clair’s service went largely unrecognized at the time. And all the while, despite several generations of Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho veterans, Wyoming lacked a memorial to honor their service.
On Thursday, that finally changed.
The Path of Honor, a memorial to Native American veterans, opened Thursday at the Frank B. Wise Business Center in Fort Washakie, where stones along a winding red path symbolize courage and commitment to leading a useful life.
Lyle Wadda of the American Legion Post 81 spearheaded the project, which began in 2008 after the Wind River Development Fund and Post 81 partnered to create the business center. Yet even after the building and memorial were completed, Wadda stood in disbelief when it was finally dedicated to the public in a ceremony attended by Governor Mark Gordon, Rep. Andi Clifford, County of D-Fremont and other dignitaries.
Wadda’s goal was to create a space where everyone is welcome.
“We accept anyone for this position,” Wadda said at the inauguration ceremony. “You don’t have to be Native American or part of another tribe. The company is open to everyone. »
St. Clair, president of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, highlighted the dedication and bravery of Native Americans who served as volunteers in the Spanish-American War and World War I, before Native Americans were granted American citizenship.
“Major General Lee Gilstrap, who trained 2,000 natives for the First World War, said – and I quote, not my own words – ‘The Indian is the best soldier in the army,'” said St. Clair.
On the Wind River Reservation alone, nearly 900 tribal members have served in conflicts ranging from World War I to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Wyoming’s first memorial dedicated to Native Americans is now open, there’s still work to be done, said Jordan Dresser, president of the Northern Arapaho Business Council. He commended veterans who have raised awareness in Indigenous communities about trauma and mental health.
“The fact that a lot of veterans here today have mentioned (mental health awareness), it’s very welcoming and hopeful,” Dresser said. “It shows that this is something to be talked about publicly and that there is no shame in it. There’s no shame in admitting you need help.
PTSD is a tough topic to talk about for Felicia Antelope, American Legion Post 96 commander and member of the Northern Arapaho tribe who spoke at Thursday’s inauguration.
After being deployed to Iraq in 2004 – a mission she and her sergeant openly opposed – she was injured and traumatized mentally and physically. She has since learned to live with PTSD and to speak openly about her struggles.
However, serving in the military has always been a dream for Antelope. His father served, along with most of his uncles. In a way, she almost felt destined for service.
“My parents talked me out of it at 18, so I ended up going to college first,” Antelope said. “After college, I decided to do volunteer work. My parents really didn’t say anything at that time because I had my own life and my own apartment, but they still tried to talk me out of it…but they were really happy.
She graduated at the top of her class, earned sergeant stripes, and rose to the Commander’s list by earning perfect marks in all of her training.
Antelope joined the military out of a sense of duty, but she also did so for future generations.
“I think it has a lot to do with the Arapaho,” she said. “Because we always think about the future. How can we improve this place for the next generation? »
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