They were shooting machine gun fire at us, tracers coming at us at nighttime just like a war zone. We had some Vietnam vets with us, and they said, "Man, this is just like Vietnam."
- Jim Robideau, American Indian Movement (AIM), about the Wounded Knee Incident (1973) on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in The American Experience: We Shall Remain (PBS)
The Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of six recognized Lakota reservations, has, as a nation, been one of the more historically powerful avatars of the Native American experience in the United States, both in terms of the long-term struggle for cultural survival, and because of a warrior tradition that remains deeply ingrained in the tribe's culture.
Despite the U.S. government having traditionally subjugated, marginalized, and even committed genocide against the Lakota, members of the Oglala nation have served in every branch of the service both before and since the Snyder Act (1924) and the Nationality Act of 1940 made Native Americans legal U.S. Citizens.
However, members of the Lakota who have served in the U.S. armed forces have been veterans of not just one kind of conflict, but two.
One has been the longer, more sustained siege historically against the Lakota, from the armed conquest of land originally belonging to the Sioux nations, to the usurping of mineral and other natural resource rights, to continued resistance regarding the right to maintain Lakota language, traditions, and cultural identity, epitomized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970's, including during the Wounded Knee Incident in 1973 (recently commemorated this year on its 40th anniversary), and the face-off between members of AIM and U.S. Marshalls in 1975.
(Many may remember two different films about the latter incident by acclaimed director Michael Apted: the documentary Incident at Oglala, narrated by Robert Redford, and the narrative film, Thunderheart.)
In terms of their presence in foreign wars, participation in the United States military in general among Native Americans is proportionally higher than any other ethnic group.
According to an article via indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com:
According to statistics provided from the U.S. Department of Defense, in 2010, 22,569 enlisted service members and 1,297 officers on active duty were of American Indian heritage. So while the U.S. population recorded nearly 1.4 percent American Indian, the military population was 1.7 percent Native, making it the highest per-capita commitment of any ethnic population to defend the United States.
Return of Lakota veterans specifically to the Pine Ridge Reservation has meant returning to a reservation beset by intense socio-economic pressures, including vast unemployment, historic instances of tribal government corruption, homelessness, alcoholism, gang activity, and domestic violence., with the Pine Ridge Reservation historically having the highest murder rate of any other U.S. reservation.
Tony Bush, who is the subject of a short film as part of a project titled Warriors from the Reservation, is both a veteran of Vietnam, and a veteran of the Wounded Knee Incident (1973), during which Oglala and the AIM held the village of Wounded Knee as part of a 71 day armed uprising protesting a corrupt tribal president and continued negligence and treaty violations by the U.S. Government.
However, he was not at Wounded Knee during the uprising as a discharged veteran--he had gone AWOL from Ft. Carson, Colorado after coming back from Vietnam-- seeing that his tribe was embroiled in a conflict against an overwhelming show of force by the very government he had just served. Suffering the effects of what is now known as PTSD from his experiences in Vietnam, he felt he had no choice but to serve in the defense of his fellow Lakota.
(According to historical records, this show of force included fifteen armored personnel carriers with .50 caliber machine guns, grenade launchers, personnel from the National Guard from five states, helicopters, and over 130,000 rounds of ammunition.)
The symbolic significance of AIM and members of the Oglala nation choosing Wounded Knee for the siege, commemorating the original Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, brought international attention. It was a French photojournalist's photograph that would eventually prove that Tony Bush had been involved in the incident, and following proceedings within the U.S. Army, Bush was eventually dishonorably discharged in 1975, officially for having gone AWOL, even with an array of service medals and the Army recognizing that the mental stresses from Vietnam had been in evidence.
Bush's case is one of many among Vietnam-era veterans who were similarly discharged with less-than-honorable status by the military for incidents directly related to what is now considered PTSD. With such a discharge status, such veterans are not often considered "veterans" and are prevented from receiving pension or disability benefits, despite often years of honorable service before PTSD-related incidents.
As with Tony Bush, it has often taken a fight to even access health benefits. Bush was only able to start receiving his health benefits from the VA this year--fully 40 years following having gone AWOL - and then only once the VA diagnosed him this year as having PTSD from his service in Vietnam.
Because PTSD has only been officially recognized as a mitigating factor in disability among the U.S. military since 1980, there has been a marked difficulty in receiving retroactive recognition of PTSD among veterans of those serving in Vietnam and other previous conflicts.
According to the VVA, quoting a 1990 medical research report, 830,000 Vietnam veterans have full-blown or partial PTSD, with only a small fraction having been later adjudicated by the VA in as having the diagnosis, despite the intense nature of warfare common during Vietnam.
This disparity has led to one notable 2012 class-action lawsuit in Federal Court: John W. Shepherd, Jr. and Vietnam Veterans of America vs. John McHugh, Secretary of the Army; Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy; and Michael Donely, Secretary of the Air Force, led by Yale Law School, in which it is argued that incidents directly related to undiagnosed PTSD resulting in less-than-honorable discharge status among Vietnam Veterans, in requesting upgrade status once having been diagnosed, have been summarily dismissed without due process in violation of both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Due Process protections of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
According to the class action, Congress had authorized the Secretary of each branch of the military to "correct any military record necessary to correct any error or remove an injustice" which can be done via an amendment of discharge status. This they may do via boards specifically charged by each branch to process applications for discharge status upgrades.
However, records show that only 2% of applications submitted by Vietnam Veterans for upgraded discharge status with PTSD being a mitigating factor are approved; 98% of the applications have been summarily denied.
Further, according to the suit, "race discrimination in the military discharge system was so pervasive in the Vietnam Era that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) concluded that an employer could not lawfully apply the requirements that job applicants who had served in the armed forces have an honorable discharge."
According to Diane Zephier, Tony Bush's attorney, also of the Oglala nation and an advocate for Lakota veterans, further damning is the Presidential Amnesty awarded by President Carter via the Presidential Proclamation of January 21, 1977 to Vietnam-era draft dodgers--if amnesty was awarded to those who didn't serve--in violation of the Military Selective Service Act--those who did serve honorably for years, with service medals and commendations before PTSD-related incidents, should indeed receive some kind of dispensation for those years of actual service, in which the very harrowing conditions of their service in theater created the very condition that has made them in many cases permanently disabled.
At this point, outside of perhaps attempting to join the class action, Zephier hopes that perhaps Vietnam veterans like Tony Bush might receive a Presidential pardon--for it would seem they perhaps might deserve it just as much, if not more, than those who intentionally violated the Selective Service Act.
Despite this, Tony Bush has led a life of service, even after Vietnam, in returning to his roots as a Lakota, participating in ceremony such as inipi (sweat lodge) and the sundance--often in the process praying or doing ceremony for others. In addition, he has gone to veteran's pow-wows, watching others receiving the respect afforded the Lakota warrior, which despite his discharge status, and even the beliefs of some of his fellow Lakota who believe that he is not truly a veteran because of his discharge status, is a code he continues to live by.
One can only hope that Bush, and those like him, whether Lakota or otherwise, will finally be given some justice, both for their war experience and the aftermath they have been forced to face without recognition.
"[The military] all say Native Americans are natural-born fighters," says Bush. "No, bullshit--we bleed too, just like you guys do."
The film trailer above is part of a larger project, Warriors from the Reservation produced by the author, K.J. Wetherholt, photojournalists Svetlana Bachevanova and Anthony Karen, and filmmaker Pamela Theodotou.