SANTA NELLA — Although it's not always recorded in history books, American Indians have fought for the cause of freedom going back to the Revolution.
Sunday, their military service was honored at the Memorial Day ceremony at San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery. Veterans wearing tribal dress presented the colors, offered prayers and paid tribute to fallen heroes.
"It is in our DNA to be protectors of the nation and our Earth," said Elizabeth Perez, a Navy veteran who hails from the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of eastern Madera County. "We are on a mission to protect the greater good."
Her father, who was in Operation Desert Storm, died three years after a medical discharge from the service. The hundreds who attended Sunday's program were moved when Perez paid tribute to a friend she met in boot camp, Seaman Nicole Palmer, who was among the sailors killed in the USS Cole bombing Oct. 12, 2000.
"Despite the short time I knew her, her memory stays with me today," she said.
Allen B. Clark, a former assistant secretary of veterans affairs, made his return to the national cemetery in western Merced County to deliver the keynote speech. A former director of the National Cemetery Administration, he helped dedicate the 320-acre burial ground in 1992.
Clark said American Indians have served admirably in major conflicts, from the Oneida warriors who helped defeat the British in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 to the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II and those involved in the war on terrorism.
The former military intelligence officer lost both legs below the knees in a mortar attack in the Vietnam War. Clark spent months undergoing physical rehab, then post-traumatic stress put him in a psychiatric ward, he said.
He said he learned to make the best of his injuries. As he was promoted in the federal government, he told doctors to give him longer artificial legs. He grew from his normal 5 feet 9 to 6 feet 2.
"I learned that, No. 1, never give up on your goals and, No. 2, grow in all your jobs," Clark said, getting a laugh from the audience. Today, Clark is a motivational speaker and has a lay ministry, Combat Faith, which helps veterans recover from wartime trauma.
Sunday's program featured musical selections such as "The Day the Eagle Cried" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Women with Gold Star Mothers and the Blue Star chapters in Merced County presented wreaths in honor of loved ones who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Members of the American Indian Veterans Association of Fresno said they were proud to take center stage for the ceremonies. Army veteran Bob Sandoval wore the traditional headdress of tribal warriors from Mexico, while others carried the eagle staff, the closest thing to a flag in American Indian culture.
"It's an honor," Sandoval said. "A lot of times, we are not recognized for our service to our country."
Fellow members said the ceremony was for military brothers and sisters of any ethnic background. People from the Central Valley and other areas of California travel to the annual program to mourn and visit the graves of loved ones.
Los Banos Mayor Mike Villalta appealed for help with creating a memorial for fallen soldiers from that city. A two-year search for photographs of the 15 killed in action in the past century netted a single picture. He asked anyone with photos or information to call Los Banos City Hall.
After the ceremony, Turlock resident Louella Tubbs spent a quiet moment with her son, Robert Porter, placing flowers at the grave of husband Dennis Tubbs, a Navy retiree who died of cancer in February. Tubbs also has a son, Richard Porter, buried at the national cemetery.
"It was beautiful," she said of the program. "I like when they sing 'God Bless America.' It always makes me cry."