Elders embrace young tribal vets

Damon White Thunder, who spent part of 2005 and 2006 in Iraq with the Army Reserve, said he felt lucky to be greeted by applause when he returned, unlike his father and other Vietnam veterans, who faced public scorn. Enlarge photo

Jeremy Shockley/Southern Ute Drum

Damon White Thunder, who spent part of 2005 and 2006 in Iraq with the Army Reserve, said he felt lucky to be greeted by applause when he returned, unlike his father and other Vietnam veterans, who faced public scorn.

Rod Grove landed in Vietnam on Aug. 29, 1970. It was his birthday. Thirteen months and 22 days later, he would leave a changed man.

“Innocence,” he said, “it’s lost.”

Today, Grove is the veterans services officer for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Standing in front of the veterans memorial he helped bring to the park in front of tribal administration, he talked about his experiences and those of recently returned veterans. He was joined by Tribal Councilor Howard Richards Sr., also a Vietnam veteran, and Damon White Thunder, a tribal employee and veteran of Iraq.

Grove said the experiences of soldiers, though separated by a generation, are much the same.

“War is war. No matter how you put it, it’s people killing people,” he said.

Grove and Richards talked about the service being a brotherhood, creating an obligation for them to help the younger vets avoid the problems they had after returning.

“It took us 30 to 40 years to get where we are today,” said Richards, who was one of three vets who formed the Southern Ute Veterans Association in 1986.

Grove, who was encouraged by Richards to be a part of the group, said, “You can’t just turn it off and forget it.”

White Thunder acknowledged it has sometimes been a challenge “adjusting to everyday, realizing that I don’t have to duck and dodge.”

He said he joined as a Reservist to get money for college. He’d hoped to avoid active duty, but after just a year in, he was in Iraq.

Elder vets and the veterans association help young vets in various ways. One is advocating for benefits. Recently, the tribe hosted some Department of Veterans Affairs “top guns” in for a visit to talk about the challenges facing tribal veterans young and old.

Richards said the tribe supports veterans in areas where their benefits fall short, but he said they don’t intend to “let the government off the hook.”

Richards said the tribe incorporates its traditions into confronting the problems vets face. This includes, above all, letting them know their community embraces them and is grateful for their service.

Richards also feels an obligation to educate the broader public about their sacrifice, “so that when we’re all gone,” he said, people will know “what we stand for.”

Grove, looking at the soldiers’ names etched into the memorial, said people are often surprised by the number of tribal members who have served.

“We’re a real small tribe to have so many people go,” he said.

When it comes to defending country, he said, the commitment of Native Americans runs deep.

“Our native people did not burn our draft cards,” he said. “We didn’t run away.”

kburford@durangoherald.com

Rod Grove, veterans services officer for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, spent years working to bring memorials honoring veterans to the park in front of the tribe’s administration building in Ignacio. The park is the focal point for a number of community events. Enlarge photo

Jeremy Shockley/Southern Ute Drum

Rod Grove, veterans services officer for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, spent years working to bring memorials honoring veterans to the park in front of the tribe’s administration building in Ignacio. The park is the focal point for a number of community events.