Thursday, March 24, 2011

Caring for Our Veterans: Lessons from WWII and Today

I recently read Double Victory: A Multicultural History of American in World War II by Ronald Takaki.  There were many parts of Takaki's book that are striking, but the one part I kept coming back to as I remembered reading through it was the story of Ira Hayes, The Indian "Hero" of Iwo Jima starting on pg 72. I had heard the story before many times, but every time I read or hear a new account, I am touched by how this smart young Native American went into war enthusiastically seeking to prove the value of both his Pima people and his pride in America as a nation.  His reasons for going to war were noble and perhaps naive, but the reward he got for his service is a dark mark on American history, too often glossed over in history classrooms.


Before teaching high school, I taught 8th graders for 6 years. Four out of those 6 years I took large groups of adolescents to Washington D.C. to experience some of their own history first hand. One of the sights we visit, of course, is the United States Marine Corps War Memorial, commonly known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. The guides, though knowledgeable, always tell the story of the first flag-raising and then the second flag-raising for the photo opportunity. They always tended to gloss over the rest of Hayes' tragic story. I suppose it doesn't make for cheerful tour groups of adolescents to explain how Hayes was pretty much forced to tour the country to encourage Americans to buy war bonds.  Hayes had trouble with the "hero" status he carried, because he knew he hadn't been present at the event he was credited for due to the staging of the second photo that became famous. He also faced unrelenting discrimination because of his Pima heritage while on tour.  He wasn't cared for when the psychological impact of his situation was manifesting in his behavior in public and in private.

But the tour also had irritating and disturbing moments.  Reporters asked Hayes questions like: "How'd you get a name like Ira Hayes, Chief? I never heard of an Indian with a name like that."  Such insults angered Hayes and aggravated the distress he felt about his unearned celebrity status.  He shrouded himself in silence.  Asked to speak at one of the bond dinners, Hayes muttered: "I'm glad to be in your city an' I hope you buy a lot of bonds."  During the tour, Hayes drank heavily and became an embarrassment to the Marine Corps.  General A. A. Vendegrift complained to Beech: "I understand you Indian got drunk on you last night?"  Shortly afterward, Hayes was abruptly sent back to the front.  The press reported that the "brave Indian" wanted to return to military action in the Pacific. (pg 77)
Ten years after the war, in 1954, Hayes was honored at the ceremony that dedicated the aforementioned Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.  Just a few weeks later, his body was found on a street in Bapchule, Arizona.  He had fallen down drunk and drowned in his own vomit.  Hayes tragic story ended abruptly because the United States, while honoring Hayes in multiple ways, did not treat him or care for him the way he needed.  Hayes would probably trade all of the cheering crowds and honor dinners for someone to show him the compassion he needed in the wake of so many difficult experiences.

I actually heard a rather touching story of a modern war veteran, Iraq veteran Brock Savelkoul, on NPR on my way home yesterday afternoon that reminded me of Hayes' story. Read or listen to the incredible story by clicking here.  I'm not the only one who was impressed by this piece of journalism.  If you have a few minutes, this video gives you a taste.

His story was heart-wrenching and literally brought me to tears during my commute.  Similar to Hayes, I bet Savelkoul would trade his Purple Heart for the help he needed to cope with his injuries.  Our soldiers need to be both honored and cared for like they deserve.  Thankfully it seems that Savelkoul's story will have a happier ending than Hayes'.

As we teach history in our classrooms, it is important to tell them the patriotic parts, but also the portions that we should learn from.  It has been over 50 years his Hayes' tragic story ended.  I hope our nation is learning from our mistakes in caring for our veterans.

Please Note: This reflection was completed as part of the author's participation in the History Connected program. Please see the History Connected Wiki or the History Connected Official Website for information on the federal grant that provided the opportunity.

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