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Being a Native American woman warrior is more than enlisting and leaving loved ones, and it’s more than learning to fire a weapon. It’s about courage, strength, sacrifice. For many, becoming a woman warrior wasn’t when they put on the uniform, but rather when they didn’t want to take it off.

By Katie Stearns

It was January 1999, and her father was dying.

Doctors told the 42-year-old recovering alcoholic he had digestive problems. But after four years of misdiagnoses, and after his body rejected a heart transplant, Rickey Jendry had a massive heart attack.

On his deathbed, he made one thing clear to his Oglala Lakota daughter: Please get an education – it’s what I’ve always wanted for you but could never afford.

Seven days later, Lisa Jendry said goodbye to her Houston home and began an intense nine-week U.S. Army basic training program in Fort Jackson, S.C. Eventually, she endured a yearlong stint in the middle of Baghdad, analyzing Iraqi news at 4:30 each morning amid mortar shells thudding through the air.  It’s also where she lost one of her closest friends to a roadside bomb, a few days before he was scheduled to go home to his wife. It’s a place where she accomplished so much but never got the chance to tell her father.

“I felt like he was with me for sure,” Lisa said. “I carried a little picture of him with me everywhere in my uniform.”

For Natives, the responsibility to protect and defend one’s people has always been revered, and hundreds of generations later, that sentiment perseveres. But no longer are the front-line soldiers exclusively men. Women have seeped into the U.S. armed forces, manning tanks, shooting guns and evading bullets – tasks traditionally reserved for men. And in Native communities today, warrior status is as sacred as ever. Upon return, men and women veterans are highly respected, often elevated to the same social status as tribal elders.

“I met a lot of Native men and women who joined because there was a long family and tribal tradition of military tradition. They spoke about their grandparents who served in the Civil War,” said Patty Loew.

, an Ojibwe who produced the documentary “Way of the Warrior.”

For these Native women warriors, the experience goes beyond wearing a uniform and getting shipped overseas. It’s more than surviving boot camp and the often hellish tour of duty that follows. The military service becomes a piece of these women, and for better or worse, it’s there to stay, the influences reverberating throughout their communities.

“Today, if you define warrior the way I do, which is more broadly, protecting culture, language, traditions, it also is survival,” said Loew, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s a cultural survival. And so the people that we define or describe as warriors are ensuring the survival of our communities. So of course we would revere them.”

Historically, the importance of women warriors is laced throughout Native culture, carefully woven into the past. Today it remains a vital part of contemporary Native life and is likely to remain for generations to come. Regardless of the era, Native women warriors can find common ground in these issues:

•The reverence tied to the warrior’s core dates back to tribal warrior societies.

•The number of Native women enlisting in the armed forces is disproportionate, their reasons deep and complex.

• Native women warriors face a greater chance of sexual harassment, which increases their chance of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a long recovery.

• PTSD, survivor’s guilt and physical disabilities become heavy burdens, lightened by therapy, VA programs, and for some, traditional tribal healing practices.

“It’s an especially big honor,” Jendry said. “It seems to be held especially close to our hearts because we can be warriors for our families, for our children.”

SHOWING COURAGE

From the beginning, warrior societies pumped life into the tribes, protecting both their communities and their cultures.

Though men traditionally made up these groups, women’s warrior societies were not unheard of, and their bravery was just as fierce.

Lozen, a 19th century Apache woman, was believed to have the ability to sense when enemies were near. Barely an adult, she fought against two of her tribe’s fiercest foes ­– Mexican soldiers and scalp hunters. Tyonajanegen was an Oneida woman who fought alongside her husband during the American Revolution. During WW I, 14 Native women served in the Army Nurse Corps.

If women weren’t fighting battles, their courage was reflected elsewhere.

“Just as a man might show deliberate courage in fighting the grizzly bear, the most ferocious and relentless of all animals, so might a woman display bravery in killing an enemy, in warding off an attacker, or in protecting her family against any harm,” Royal Hassrick wrote in “The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society.”

Mark Awakuni-Swetland, an honorary member of the Omaha Nation and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said warrior societies served two critical purposes for the Omaha people. They “had that role of maintaining internal harmony and at the same time protecting the people from external enemies.”

Today, the function of warrior societies has shifted. Tribal color guards and pow-wows are the closest things to these societies. The Omaha Nation had the Gold Star Mothers, which started as a group of women who had lost loved ones at war. They organize and orchestrate the return of soldiers. *

These ideals are deeply rooted throughout Indian County.

“You go into combat, and you are brave, and you come home in an honorable way. Those aren’t new values,” Awakuni-Swetland said of his tribe. “Those are old values that were here way before white people came to this community.”

SERVING THE COUNTRY

Almost 2 million women are now enlisted in the U.S. armed forces. Native American women comprise about 18,000 of those spots.

“That may sound small, but when you look at the population, that’s actually pretty high,” said Connie Moffitt, the minorities veterans coordinator at the Black Hills VA Center.

The high rate of Native women enlistment translates into intricate motives that can’t reduced to a simplified list.

“It’s a really complex issue because there are lots of layers and motivation for Native American service,” said Loew, who spent three years producing her documentary exploring Native service.

Many native women sign up to get an education, escape tough times on the reservation, see the world or to make a positive impact in communities.

For Jan Malcom, a member of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, enlisting in the U.S. Army provided the opportunity to see a world she’d only read about.

“When I was studying history in high school, I just loved the cobblestone streets, the old European countryside and buildings and everything else, and I thought, ‘I want to get over there someday,’” Malcom said.

In 1965, after enlisting in the Women’s Army Corp, the then 18-year-old spent two years stationed in Mons, Belgium, working as a communication specialist, decoding messages from around the world.

And when she could, she traveled. She visited the streets of London, the Tulip Festival in Holland, the Black Forest in Germany. And she saw Paris.

Although Stacey Stabler, of the Omaha Nation, enlisted in the Army Guard when she was 17, she knew she wanted to enlist when she was 8. And when she was 17, she needed both of her parents’ signatures.

“They were actually ecstatic by that because…they saw…a way of improving yourself and your life, so it was really important for me to do that,” Stabler said.

+ Video

Stacey’s stacy talks about what her mother said that after her fourth child joined the military.

Darla Black, an Oglala Lakota and U.S. Army veteran, wanted to prove her uncles wrong.

When she approached them about joining the Army, “They said, ‘No – a woman’s place is at home.’ And I decided to prove them wrong. They were wrong,” said Black, who enlisted in the Army in 1980 and transferred to the National Guard as a supply specialist. Black also wanted to hop on a plane to escape the Pine Ridge Reservation and have an opportunity to get an education.

With fresh wounds from her father’s death and the dream of an education, Jendry felt the pull of family ties.

Her mother served for four years as a lab technician in Washington, D.C., at Fort Reed Army Medical Center during Vietnam. “I felt a really strong desire just to follow in her footsteps as a woman warrior,” Jendry said.

Meanwhile, Linda Robinson of the Omaha Nation enlisted in 1968 with the Women’s Army Corp. After a childhood speckled with her dad’s WW II stories, the 18-year-old woman wanted to be a part of that tradition.

“I couldn’t see why a Native woman couldn’t do the same thing and serve her country.”

STRUGGLING AGAINST TOUGH ODDS

Before a Native American woman is even born, statistics are stacked against her. At some point in her life, numbers say one in three Native women will be sexually harassed or assaulted – a rate 2.5 times greater than the overall population, according to a report compiled by the Indian Health Service.

And that’s before she enters the military.

“Being a woman and being in the military is not like being a man and being in the military,” said Amy Vannatter, the women veterans program manager at the Black Hills VA Center. Women not only have a higher chance of experiencing sexual trauma before serving, but also during, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

It is with this weight Native American women enter the armed forces, where almost a quarter of all women experience sexual assault, and more than half encounter sexual harassment. When paired with the high probability that they’ve already experienced sexual trauma prior to enlisting, it bodes ill for many Native women.

“The double whammy for Native women is not only did they maybe see their buddy get blown up from an IED, but they may have been sexually assaulted or harassed at the same time,” said Dr. Sally Weyer, who does outpatient treatment for veterans on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Beyond sexual harassment, some Native women found that simply being a woman discredited them in men’s eyes.

“The male soldiers did not want us there,” said Stabler, who enlisted in January 1994. “They made it plain and simple and told us, “Hey, you do not belong here.’ They did not help us. We had to help ourselves.”

The struggles don’t end as soon as a woman’s service or tour or basic training camp is over.

Stabler’s been in the Army for 15 years, and she hasn’t yet received an eagle feather from the Omaha Nation. The eagle feather is a grand symbolic gesture – recognition of a warrior who has sacrificed something to defend the people.

“Women don’t have the right to get one,” Stabler said. “It’s just something we don’t get.” She said that from a young age, the children in her tribe are taught to listen to the elders. And the elders say men are greater than women. She accepts this as it is, as it has always been.

+ Video

Stacey Stabler describes the Native American tradition of prestige and differentiates between getting a feather and “being feathered.”

“ I don’t think we ever will be equivalent to the Native male,” she said. “I think we do come to terms with it, we do accept it. I don’t believe that we’ll ever see the day that the Native female will equal…the Native male.”

CONTINUING THE BATTLE AT HOME

Lisa Jendry’s son was 6 years old when his mother sat him down to tell him she was leaving for Iraq. She tried to put it in terms Rickey, named after the grandfather he never met, could understand.

“I said there were a lot of children who needed help; they had some bad things happening there, and we had to go help them have a better life and keep them safe.  And he seemed to really understand that.”

Understanding didn’t make goodbye any easier.

“It hurts when you give him that last hug and that last kiss. It’s unbelievably painful. I had to tell myself that I was doing something important. I was doing something for him. I couldn’t really think about the time frame; I had to kind of separate my mind from that.”

Not quite grasping the timeline of his mother’s service, Rickey often asked, “when are you gonna come home?” When he asked his mom if she still loved him, Lisa knew she needed to come home.

And in the middle of July 2006, she did just that.

But for Jendry, like many women warriors coming home, transitioning was not easy. For the past year, bombs and blasts throughout the Green Zone had been her daily background noise and her nightly lullaby. She ventured into the Red Zone a handful of times, her protective gear on and weapons always ready to fire. Returning from Baghdad to Texas was tough, as it is for many women returning home.

“They aren’t just being cooks. They aren’t just being nurses,” said Sherry Kloeckl, a case manager with the VA Black Hills for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  “They’re being gunners. They’re being drivers. Physically, they’re carrying the same things the men are, and they’re not physically as strong.”

So when these Native women warriors come home, it’s often a harsh transition.

“You do so much in the military. You’re always going. You always have a purpose,” Jendry said. “Your car’s going really, really fast, and then you get out, and it’s like a crash.”

Consequently, PTSD, survivor’s guilt and depression hit many Native women hard once they return.

“When they come back from serving, especially the new ones, they are expected to just fall back into place to what they were doing before,” said Weyer, who’s worked at the VA Black Hills since 2001. “And also that meant that their warrior status gets set aside, and they are expected to resume that nurturing, caring status that they had before.”

And because women experience sexual harassment at a higher rate in the military, and Native women already have a greater chance of sexual harassment before serving, Native American women have an even higher chance of suffering from PTSD.

Other women don’t even realize they’re grappling with the mental illness.

Although Malcom returned from Belgium in 1968, it wasn’t until 2004 ago she realized she had PTSD.

“I started hearing the symptoms over and over again, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of what I live like,’” she said. Through peer counseling, a therapist and a color guard, Malcom has found some peace. She now gets a monthly payment from the government to cover her PTSD.

GETTING BACK TO NORMAL

At the end of the day, each woman must find her own way to heal, to feel normal again.

“When I took my uniform off, it felt like I was taking off a part of my spirit – like my heart,” she said.

She also didn’t feel at home in Houston. On a whim, she decided to move back to Rapid City, S.D., hoping to connect with her Lakota culture.

Once there, Jendry got involved with a warrior society – the Wildhorse Butte Tokala Intertribal Color Guard. After members discovered she was an Iraq War veteran, they asked her to join so they could honor her warrior status and recognize what she had sacrificed.

“There’s a recognition that these men and women who have gone off to war have experienced training to turn them from peaceful people into instruments of war – killing machines,” Loew said. “It seemed to me that every Native community I encountered recognized that when these instruments of war came back into society that we, as a community, have an obligation to help them make that transition from a person of war to a person of peace. “

+ Video

Darla Black talks about forgiving the US government for its history of violence towards her race and encourages mutual respect and understanding

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MOVING ON AFTER BATTLE

Today, Lisa Jendry devotes her time to color guard, powwows, her 9-year-old son and finally, getting an education.

As a full-time student at Black Hills State University, she attends class four nights a week. She’ll have her degree in human services and a minor in Native American studies in 2012.

Lisa, who suffers from a traumatic brain injury and pelvic injury caused by her uneven legs, gets her tuition paid for under the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program. It also covers her books, school supplies and provides a stipend that allows her to be a full-time student.

When Rickey asks what his mom’s studying or what she’s reading, as he often does, Lisa makes a point not to shoo him away. She loves when their studies collide and brings him pamphlets and handouts from her college courses.

“Being able to say, “My mom’s going to college now,” I think that’s a source of pride for him,” she said.

Once she gets her degree, she hopes to be there for other veterans like they were for her.

“We have this whole huge group of veterans coming back and will be for a long time, and we gotta make sure that they’re not being failed,” Lisa said. “That’s so important and so crucial that they get what they’re entitled to, that they don’t come back and feel like they’re not understood.”

Had she not joined the military, Lisa’s not sure she where she would’ve ended up.

“The military sort of forced me to do something with my life and not get caught up in the fact that he (her dad) had just died,” she said.

And if her father could see her now?
“He would be so proud,” she said. “I think about it a lot, him and my son would be very, very close. I could see it now, they’d be fishing, they’d be doing everything together.”

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