American Indians Relish First All Native Honor Flight

Forty-three Native American Veterans have made history, again.

Last month, Honor Flight Nevada, a non-profit organization whose mission is to transport military veterans to Washington D.C., to tour our nation’s capital and visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of them and their friends, organized an all-Native trip for American Indians living in the Great Basin.

“We’ve had Native Americans on trips, but we weren’t able to show them their memorials specific for them,” said Jon Yuspa, founder of Honor Flight Nevada. “With this trip solely dedicated to Native Americans, we wanted to bring attention to their service and show the rest of the nation that they should be doing the same thing.”

Though it is well documented that based on our overall population and the percentage of volunteers, American Indians have a served in the United States Military more than any other ethnicity or gender, many Americans do not know about the long history of service by Native Americans.

This three-day trip certainly helped get that message out while reminding the veterans in what high esteem they are held.

Retired four-star General and former presidential candidate, Barry McCaffrey, who was the keynote speaker at the Vietnam Memorial Wall Ceremony held every Veterans Day, recognized the all-Native American Honor Flight within the first minutes of his speech.

“Native Americans enlist in greater numbers than the rest of the population and they move to the front areas of the combat zone,” General McCaffrey told thousands of onlookers. “They have suffered huge casualties, so there’s a special debt of gratitude we owe to them.”

In addition, the group got special, up close seating and participated in the prestigious Vietnam Wall ceremony.

Veteran Grizz Hilpert, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe who helped lay the wreath, was touched by the quick recognition and the inclusion.

“We weren’t last for a change,” Hilpert said. “That sounds funny, but we’re used to kind of being sent out back.”

However, this historic experience was totally different. Nothing during the trip was second class according to Gary McCloud of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. “We were treated better than dignitaries,” McCloud said.

And accolades like McCloud’s were plentiful.

“It was a million dollar trip,” said John Smith, a 95-year-old, World War II Veteran and the eldest participant. Smith, who lives on the Walker River Paiute Reservation said that the group shared so many laughs, it was just a priceless trip.

Certainly, one of factors which made the experience so unique, was the spirited, spontaneous greetings and the magnificent welcomes the group enjoyed beginning with their departure from the Reno Tahoe International Airport and ending with their return to the same spot.

The veterans relished their complimentary flight aboard Battle Born Nevada One, a Southwest Airlines custom designed and painted 737 aircraft.

At every turn of the trip, crowds greeted the veterans with applause, thanks, cheers and sometimes tears.

“People—a lot of little kids, too—lined up to shake our hands and thank us for our service,” said Harvey Merino, a Veteran who did four tours in Vietnam. “People shook our hands starting in Reno at the airport, and it continued in Washington, D.C., at all the memorial sites, and until we got home.”

For many of the veterans, like Robert Tillman, also known as Truckee Bob, the rousing greetings from complete strangers were noteworthy.

“The last time I was in Washington D.C., after the war, people greeted me with jeers and threw fruit at us,” said Tillman, a Paiute Indian who heads up the Pyramid Lake Veterans and Warriors Organization or the Numa Tookwasu.

Even though returning home from war should have been one of the highlights of military service, because the Vietnam Conflict was so controversial, many soldiers were met with hostility by the general public.

“This was worth waiting 48 years for,” said Ray Harrison, a Sioux who lives in the Elko area. “I don’t think I’ve ever been treated better.”

In addition to several special surprises, the All-Native Honor Flight Nevada, visited several monuments including: the United States Navy Memorial, the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial and Iwo Jima Marine Memorial, the National World War II Memorial, and the Air Force Memorial.

The All-Native Honor Flight Nevada included two stops at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, a tour of Arlington National Cemetery, also with VIP seating at the changing of the guard.

At the American Indian Museum, the veterans were treated to lunch with a Navajo Code Talker, Thomas H. Begay.

During World War II, radio transmission was the fastest way to deliver commands overseas.

In 1942, Marines from the Navajo tribe began to send voice transmissions in their Native language. It was impossible for the enemy to interpret or gain intelligence from these messages even if they were able to intercept the information.

Besides sharing his personal stories as a Navajo Code Talker, Begay sang the Marines’ Hymn in Navajo which was a thrill to all the veterans, but especially to the six fellow Marines.

During another museum visit, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald gave his personal regards to the veterans during a private reception. McDonald presented each Native Veteran with a commemorative Department of Veterans Affairs coin.

Furthermore, with a police escort during the entire stay, the veterans were treated to ideal vantage points of the White House, the Capital Building, the Pentagon, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial Arlington Memorial Bridge and the Old Post Office Washington D.C., now Trump Hotel. To see these sites, the group did not even de-board their luxury coach.

Honor Flight is a nationwide program and in Nevada, it has organized flights since 2012. The Veterans trip expenses are paid for thanks to monetary donations as well as donated plane tickets compliments of Southwest Airlines.

One of three female veterans on the trip, Jeanine Paul said that Honor Flight Nevada made all the veterans feel special and important.

“From the initial briefing to the massive return celebration at the airport, we were so touched,” Paul said.

Michael Moreno is from a Southwest tribe who resides in Northern Nevada, agreed with Paul.

“I feel good in my heart,” he said.