Native Americans have served in the U.S. military in every major conflict since the Revolutionary War but are often overlooked, according to historians and tribal leaders.
A memorial coming to Washington will honor the roughly 141,000 veterans and 15,100 active-duty service members who are Native Americans. The memorial, which will be outside the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall, is expected to open on Veterans Day in 2020.
Museum officials said they’re planning an exhibit to share the stories of Native American service members. Here are six American Indian veterans you may never have heard about.
- Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler (Cherokee). He was assigned to an elite Delta Force in the Army and was killed in Iraq in 2015. Wheeler was the first American service member killed in action in the U.S. fight against the Islamic State.
Wheeler, a 39-year-old father of four from Oklahoma, was credited with helping to release 70 hostages held by ISIS, according to the office of Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). Wheeler was shot in the rescue. He had 14 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded several Bronze Stars.
- Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (Brule Sioux). As a World War II combat pilot, he earned the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross. He was credited with shooting down 26 Japanese planes and was awarded the Medal of Honor.
During his career, he also flew with the famed Flying Tigers in Burma, now also known as Myanmar.
At one point, he was in charge of the Marine Corps fighter squad known as the “Black Sheep.” A television series called “Baa Baa Black Sheep” in the late 1970s was inspired by Boyington and his Black Sheep squadron.
He was shot down over the Pacific Ocean and became a prisoner of war for almost two years.
- Ely S. Parker (Seneca). He served as secretary for Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War. In 1865, Parker was the highest-ranking Native American in the Union Army, a lieutenant colonel, and helped draft the terms of surrender for the war at Appomattox, according to American Indian museum experts.
Parker later recalled that after learning of his race, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stared at him, extended his hand and said, “I am glad to see one real American here.” In response, Parker said, “We are all Americans.”
Parker went on to become an officer in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.
- ●Billy Walkabout (Cherokee). The Oklahoma native was considered one of the most decorated Native American soldiers in the Vietnam War. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, a Purple Heart and several Silver and Bronze Stars.
Walkabout served as an Army Ranger sergeant and became known for taking heavy gunfire and saving comrades in a mission behind enemy lines, according to his obituary in USA Today. He retired from the Army as a second lieutenant and died in 2007.
In a 1986 interview with the Associated Press, Walkabout said his years in Vietnam had left him with injuries and troubles. He would imagine bombs going off and was worried that in his sleep he would hurt his wife or push her under the bed to protect her.
“War is not hell,” he said. “It’s worse.”
He said he found comfort in Native American pow wows with the beat of the drum and chanting of the singers.
- Donna M. Loring (Penobscot). She served as a communications specialist in Vietnam and processed casualty reports, according to the American Indian museum. She eventually became the first female police academy graduate and went on to become the Penobscots’ police chief. She also served as a state adviser on women veterans’ affairs.
- Master Sgt. Raul “Roy” Perez Benavidez (Yaqui). His parents were of Mexican and Yaqui Indian ancestry and he enlisted in the U.S. Army in the 1950s.
In Vietnam, Benavidez suffered serious injuries after he stepped on a land mine and was told by doctors he’d never walk again. But he did and eventually returned to Vietnam.
While serving as part of a Special Forces team, he was on a helicopter and heard a call for help from units on patrol. He jumped from the chopper and, armed with a knife, went to help. Benavidez suffered more than 30 bayonet and shrapnel wounds during a six-hour battle, experts said.
He earned the Medal of Honor, several Purple Hearts and other awards.