Too many men from my family served in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. I’ve been to countless Veteran’s Memorial Day remembrances since childhood because of this. Some of my relatives never made it home. I learned about them through stories told about their lives while others who came back were transformed from war experiences, functioning with untreated PTSD, isolation, depression, and an array of physical and spiritual health problems.
Before my experience in 2012, at Southern Ute Veterans Memorial Park in Ignacio on Memorial Day, I never contemplated these things; I was only a spectator. This beautiful ceremony open to veterans, families and anyone who wishes to show their respect, deeply touched my spirit to the point of being able to connect with my relatives, through the prayers and songs voiced, all possible because Southern Ute Veteran’s ‘Day of Remembrance,’ gave an invitation to individuals present to be part of the ceremony. My relatives felt as palpable to my spirit as anything I’ve ever physically touched.
I was invited by Southern Ute elder, Russell Box Sr, to experience the Bear Dance ceremony and annual powwow on the Southern Ute Reservation. Just beginning to write his biography, Russell Box Senior The Physical And Spiritual Journey Of A Southern Ute Elder, Mr. Box also wanted me to see places he had been talking about for the book.
According to the Southern Ute Tribe’s website, the concept of a veterans organization began with three tribal veterans, Roger E. Price, Howard Richards Sr., and Randy Baker Sr., in 1986 to address the unique needs of tribal veterans. The Southern Ute Tribal Council donated a park in 1994 to the Veterans Association (known as Veterans Memorial Park). In 1995, Southern Ute Veteran’s created bylaws and officially sought tribal recognition which they received. They’ve been known as the Southern Ute Veterans Association ever since with a mission to help procure benefits for veterans, remain active in community functions, and provide no-cost military services and Color Guard duties when asked.
My photographer husband Mark Niederquell, drifted away from me to take photos in Veterans Memorial Park, after seeking permission first from Rod Grove, who was at that time Vice Commander of the Southern Ute Veterans Association.
Rock and Roll music reverberates from speakers set up by Eddie and Betty Box, who take care of the audio throughout the ceremony as people settle beneath majestic cottonwood trees.
Standing in front of the Ute Veterans Monument, the Southern Ute Chairman welcomes everyone to the ceremony. A Color Guard of Veterans carries and presents the flags, Ute Flag in the middle, which artist Russell Box Sr. and other veterans created together.
A widow of a deceased Vietnam Veteran offers a prayer in her native Ute Language. Although I can’t understand Ute, the prayer flows through my heart like pure mountain water. She then switches over to English and speaks about the sacrifice tribal men have always made to protect their homes and families from enemies. Then, deceased veteran’s family members are invited to talk about their loved one’s lives. It is especially moving to me when generations of relatives stand together and speak, wrapped in Pendleton blankets.
Next, the Ute ceremony honors tribal veteran elders from the Korean Conflict by gifting each of them with a Pendleton blanket. Receiving one is a high honor with deep emotional meaning. I watch my usually stoic (then) seventy-nine-year-old friend and one of the elders honored, fight back tears.
Then the Color Guard, Veterans, families and participants are told to line up, in that order, for the walk to Ute Cemetery called the ‘Walk of the Warrior.’ Silence of the walkers, except for footfalls hitting against the pavement, offer me time to contemplate. Only children’s voices are heard. Though they cause me to move into another thought, nothing makes me leave my contemplative place, not even rhythmic sounds of Bear Dance singers heard from the nearby Bear Dance grounds.
I think about uncles, grandfathers, cousins and father-in-laws who served. My father-in-law’s PTSD flashbacks were triggered with a drop of blood, because he’d been an ambulance driver during the Korean Conflict.
An uncle’s screams in the night and cousin saying it was, “bad dreams from the war,” and being nine-years-old when my Aunt’s boyfriend drives into my Grandmother’s driveway in his new Pontiac GTO, then watch her delight fade as he told her about enlisting in the Army to serve in Vietnam. She was very sad about it later. I don’t know if he came back home alive.
We stop walking in the middle of a bridge over the Los Pinos River for a wreath to be dropped in the water to remember those who died at sea. A red-tail hawk repeatedly gliding in long, low circles over the Ute Cemetery finally pulls me from my memories and I overhear a Ute man behind us tell his child, “that hawk is coming to take our prayers to the creator, who will give blessings back to the people.”
The gorgeous bird flies low over the gathering crowd with outstretched wings, patiently circling until us humans take our place at Ute Cemetery and ascends only when prayers are started in Ute by Vietnam Veteran Terry Knight. Curiously, the Yellow Southern Ute Veterans flag, nestled between the others, moves with a gentle breeze yet no wind is blowing and only that flag moves. I whisper this to my husband so he will notice and validate it for me later, when I might question if I really saw it happen. The hawk climbed higher, while staying in the same circular pattern over the participants during the singing of honor songs, drumming and more prayers, yet spiraling upward until its red tail became a tiny red speck. I strained to see because the hawk was almost lost in a sea of turquoise blue sky.
The ceremony over, I walked back to Southern Ute Veterans Memorial Park a changed person, one who made a connection to relatives who offered support from another realm giving me strength, and in awe of how the Southern Ute Nation remembers and honors its veterans.
This year’s Memorial Day of Remembrance event begins at 10:00 a.m. in Ignacio at Southern Ute Veterans Park.
Judith A. Stone is a former journalist, writer, speaker, and author of ‘Billie the Buffalo,’ children’s books. Her latest release, Russell Box Senior The Physical And Spiritual Journey Of A Southern Ute Elder, a biography on elder Russell Box Senior, is available locally at Maria’s Book Shop, Sky Ute Casino Gift Shop and the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum. Visit his online website at www.russellboxsenior.com for more information.