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Wreath laying honors service, sacrifice of Native American military members

Native American Indian Heritage Month 2018

Matt Wang, a member of the Boy Scouts of America's Order of the Arrow, performs a traditional Native American dance during a Native American Indian Heritage Month event at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Nov. 1, 2018. Wang and members of the Red River Intertribal Club attended a ceremonial wreath laying to commemorate and honor the sacrifices Native American men and women have paid while serving in the U.S. military. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)

Native American Indian Heritage Month 2018

Members of the Red River Intertribal Club sing a song while playing a drum as Matt Wang performs a traditional dance in colorful attire during the annual Native American Indian Heritage Month wreath laying ceremony at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Nov. 1, 2018. Leadership and Airmen from Sheppard attended the event to pay tribute to the Native American military men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to the country. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)

Native American Indian Heritage Month 2018

A wreath honoring Native American military men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice rests on a stand in the Sheppard Club as base leadership and Airmen pay their respects during a wreath laying ceremony at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Nov. 1, 2018. Members of the Red River Intertribal Club were present for the ceremony, a traditional event durng Native American Indian Heritage Month. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)

Native American Indian Heritage Month 2018

Brig. Gen. Ronald E. Jolly Sr., left, 82nd Training Wing commander, and Billy Sellman, Red River Intertribal Club, honor Native American men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice with a wreath laying ceremony at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Nov. 1, 2018. Members of the RRIC attended the event and performed a traditional Native American song and dance for Airmen in attendance. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – Donald Jensen held his Native American otter drop in his left hand here Nov. 1, 2018, following a ceremonial wreath laying to commemorate the ultimate sacrifice men and women of the first American’s made throughout the country’s history.

Tacked on the otter drop is the Navy Warfare Insignia, or SEALs Trident, given to him in Vietnam by the special operators he supported there – a rare recognition for someone not technically a SEAL. His was a continuation of military service by his family and hundreds of thousands of other Native Americans who took up arms in defense of the United States.

They were all honored during a ceremonial wreath laying at the Sheppard Club as part of Native American Indian Heritage Month. Members of the Red River Intertribal Club, leadership from Sheppard AFB and Airmen in training attended the recognition event.

Jensen, born Cherokee but adopted into the Arapaho, Kiowa and Comanche nations among others, said his adoptive grandfather fought in World War II and was a survivor of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. He said he had to put the violent acts committed by their Japanese captors during the war into Native American cultural terms to help him understand why they happened.

His adoptive father, he said, was among the first in the Navy to serve as Amphibious Scouts and Raiders, the precursor to the SEALs.

To be a SEAL (scout and raider), you had to jump off the back end of the ship and be one of the first 10 men to cross the finish line,” he said. “So, all you had to be was a fast swimmer and he would be given different explosive bundles, and they would swim in, in their bathing suits and K-bar and tie detonation packages to field obstacles.”

Jensen said his adoptive father chastised him when Jensen came home from the Vietnam War with his medals – including the SEALs trident – affixed to his otter drop. He explained to his father that he was allowed to wear them in that manner as a Native American, to which he eventually agreed.

“I always had the attitude you always do the best you can whatever job they assign to you,” he said. “I was honored by the SEALs. That’s more important than anything else because that’s man to man. It’s a designation of respect given to me by the seals. Don’t get any personal than that.”

Brig. Gen. Ronald E. Jolly, 82nd Training Wing commander, in his opening remarks said Native Americans have fought within the ranks of the U.S. military in major conflicts since the Revolutionary War before the United States of America was a country. He mentioned the unparalleled work of Native American code talkers during World War II, and the death of 7th Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Clarence Leonard Tinker, a member of the Osage Nation, while leading a B-24 Liberator bombing attack in June 1942.

He was the first general to die in World War II and the first Native American to reach that rank.

“These are just two examples of so many of American Indian heritage in our U.S. military and today as we lay this wreath, we honor all of the Native American men and women who have sacrificed to ensure the freedom of our great nation, and we thank each and every one of them,” Jolly said.

Native American Indian Heritage Month has been recognized in November since President George H.W. Bush declared it so in August 1990.