Tim Giago: Memorial Day speech at Black Hills National Cemetery
There is no greater honor than to be asked by my fellow veterans to make this address to you on this special day. I am truly humbled to be in the presence of so many Native American veterans who served this country with honor and distinction.

Looking out across the fields of white crosses and at the faces of those Indian warriors gathered here today to honor their own and knowing that every branch of the military is represented by the Native veterans in attendance, I am reminded of the one thing everyone of us has in common. Some of you call it basic training and some call it boot camp, but it is the one thing that will forever be etched into the minds of each and every veteran.

There is not a veteran here that does not remember his or her serial number. It was one of the first things drilled into our minds over and over. How many pushups did you have to do before you could shout out your serial number like you could your own name?

I think that for most of the Native Americans here today, boot camp was a little different than it was for most non-Indians. In 1951 when I enlisted in the United States Navy I was 17-years-old. Like many Indians in 1951 I had just come from a boarding school where we had an obstacle course, we marched to and from church and other activities and we slept in dormitories. So that first week in boot camp was no big change.

I remember marching to the mess hall for my first meal as a new recruit. It was on a Friday and as I walked through the mess line holding out my metal tray, the mess cooks dumped different foods on the tray. As I said, it was a Friday and I saw on my tray foods I had never seen before. There were scallops, shrimp and oysters. We never had this kind of food on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where I was raised and where I went to school. I had never eaten any of this food before. I took a seat at a table shared with the guys from my company, Company 005, and watched carefully to see what the other guys were going to do with this strange food. It turned out to be pretty tasty and for the first time in my life I became a fan of seafood.

Although many of us were familiar with, and some fluent, in our Native tongues, all of a sudden we had to learn a different language. It was the language every recruit strains to master in those first few weeks; the language of the military.

Instead of a wall there was a bulkhead and you didn’t go to the bathroom, you went to the head. There were no longer stairs to climb, you now climbed ladders. A door became a hatch and the ceiling became the overhead. There were no more windows, there were portholes. There was a fore and aft and on the wooden vessel known as the USS Recruit, there was a port and a starboard. A rope became a line and you didn’t use clothe pins to hang your clothing out to dry, you used clothe stops. You no longer walked on floors, you walked on decks and your shaving kit became a ditty bag. The soda fountain became a geedunk and the place you bought clothing became a small store. You didn’t just have a cigarette, but instead had to wait until you heard, “The smoking lamp is lighted in all authorized places.”

The Army, Air Force and the Marine Corps all had a language of their own, and the poor Marines, they not only had to learn the lingo of the Navy, they also had to learn the language that would transform them into Fighting Jarheads.

We all marched on a grinder, learned about reveille and taps and learned to stop whatever we were doing and stand at attention when the flag was raised or lowered.

And I do not believe there is a single veteran present here today that does not recall that special day, after we had survived several weeks of oftentimes brutal boot camp, that special day we donned our dress uniforms, formed company ranks, and marched in front of the reviewing stands on graduation day. When we passed the stands and the Drill Instructor shouted, “Eyes Right,” our heads snapped as one, and we looked at friends and family, and of course, all of the big brass, sitting in the bleachers cheering us on.

Those were the days every veteran in attendance here today recalls and these are the special memories most of us will carry with us to our graves. Go Navy!

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

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