BIRDSPRINGS-Veterans from several groups braved stinging sand-laden wind to gather at the Birdsprings Full Gospel Church compound to discuss topics and to plan memorial ceremonies for fallen Navajo warrior Christopher Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was the eighth Navajo soldier to lose his life in President Bush's "War on Terror" after coming under fire on May 14, 2007 in Salman Park, Iraq. Gonzalez was a member of the First Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, Third Brigade Combat Team, Third Infantry Division out of Ft. Stewart, Ga.
Judy Nez, the Gold Star Mother of Gonzalez, will always associate her son's passing with Memorial Day. The family held services for her son on May 25 - only three days before that holiday. Veteran bikers involved in the Run for the Wall last year played a large role in honoring Gonzalez. The family plans to hold Gonzalez' Memorial Services on May 24, part of the Memorial Day weekend.
A need for compassion
Plans for the setting of a flagpole at the church compound revealed that the grief experienced by the family from their loss is still fresh. Their need to celebrate a memorial for Gonzalez led Nez looking for information as to what was available from the Office of Veterans Affairs to help with this matter.
"I turned to the Tuba City Veterans Office to talk about my son's memorial," Nez said.
Instead of talking with her about what was possible, Nez said, the person on the other end of the line began asking her a lot of questions - questions she could not answer. She tried explaining that Gonzalez' wife would have the documentation being asked for. Further, Nez said, she was told that her son wasn't registered at Tuba City and that he didn't vote there.
"I tried explaining that he had graduated there and had gone straight into the military, but that I voted there," Nez said. "They wanted all these forms and didn't want to talk about my questions. Finally, I asked them about Gibson Jones, remembering that this man had come up to me and had given me his card during my son's services and then I was put on hold. When they came back on the line, they told me that there was a friend that I could contact - Archie - who put me in touch with Gibson.
I talked with Gibson and I told him about the phone call and how it seemed to my knowledge that as a Gold Star Mother, it was inappropriate that I would be talked to in such a manner," Nez said. "That's where this all got started."
The American Legion Post 112 usually holds a Memorial Day event in Leupp. However, the post will also support the Gonzalez event.
"Guess we'll be double served meals that day," Jones said with a smile. The Tolani Lake Chapter will also be available.
Navajo Nation Medal of Honor
The recently unveiled Navajo Nation Medal of Honor designed by artist Sheldon Preston, grandson of Navajo Code Talker Jimmie Preston, was discussed. Preston, who undoubtedly put his heart and soul into the design, was paid $70,000 for his work-money that opponents to the medal believe could have been better used for services for Navajo Nation veterans.
Further, members of the group spoke of concerns that the medal would put down the U.S. Medal of Honor.
"The money used for this medal could have helped so many," Jones said. "A lot of peacetime veterans will get this medal. Theoretically, soldiers who performed KP (Kitchen Patrol) duties would be able to get this medal.
Davis, as Commander of the Birdsprings Chapter, attended a meeting in Window Rock on Feb. 25.
"Veterans of all five agencies attended," Davis said. "Agency and Chapter commanders voted 34 to 0 that we don't want the medal."
Jones added that some Navajo medicine men have also disagreed with the design.
"One man in the meeting stood up against it, saying that he had been awarded a Silver Star in World War II," Jones said. "He said that it was just a piece of a star, and, 'What will happen if I get the Navajo Nation Medal of Honor? What will it do for us?'"
Protest dishonoring of American flag
One of several posters circulating the Leupp and Birdsprings chapters announcing the Longest Walk 2 was passed among attendees of the meeting - depicting a young woman wrapped in an upside-down American flag.
"Dennis Banks, don't hang the flag upside down," Jones said. "We veterans on the Navajo Nation are proud to have served our country. We've received calls complaining about this poster, and we call upon veterans to not support the walk. Please change the poster, and we'll be happy to walk."
Richard David added that he had been invited by organizers of local events to post the colors.
"Later I saw this, and didn't show up," David said. "There were lots of calls to my house, looking for me. It's a good cause, but the poster is a thorn in our sides. If our kids serving in Iraq and in other countries see this, they will not be happy."
Fifth Annual Lori Piestewa Memorial
Several in attendance of the meeting spoke of their experiences at the Fifth Annual Lori Piestewa Memorial held March 28 in Phoenix. Judy Nez attended the event as a Gold Star Mother, and was asked to share her feelings about the experience.
"It was my first year being a Gold Star Mother," Nez said. "I didn't really get to talk to other Gold Star Mothers, but I was really welcomed. I was invited to speak about my experiences. Maybe along the way I will, but it is still hard for me to talk about it. They treated me really well."
Stand and be counted
Several members of the group presented the importance of chapters to work towards registering veterans of all ages.
George Kee, an American Legion member and a member of the Navajo Nation Vietnam Veterans Organization, said that he understood that younger people did not register.
"Usually, the young ones, it's hard to get them involved," Kee said. "I was the same way. I didn't want to be involved in service-related organizations. Later, I grew pride in what I had given to my country.
"When I got to be 68 years old, I realized that I needed help," Kee said. "Now, I can see the benefits of registering while young."
Davis emphasized the importance of registration.
"Chapters should be registering their veterans," Davis said. "One important reason is the trust fund that the Navajo Nation gave to the five agencies, which in turn was given to the chapters. This money is distributed equally between the chapters right now, but chapters such as Tuba City, with 400 or more veterans, don't think it is fair for the money to be equally distributed between chapters. In the future, money will be distributed by percentages, so chapters need to be registering their veterans."
Members of the Navajo Nation Vietnam Veterans Organization honored World War II Codetalker George Willie and Korean War Veteran Junior Nez.
Jones presented a button designed by his son, Gibson Jones Jr. and wife Lilly Nockideneh.
Stating that Nez had often admired his own Vietnam Veteran cap, Jones presented Nez with a Korean War Veteran cap of his own.
The Nez family provided a meal for meeting attendees.