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Native American legacy of honor, dedication

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas (AFNS) -- During November, the nation pays homage to the contributions of Native Americans throughout history.

On Aug. 3, 1990, President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month, thereafter commonly referred to as Native American Heritage Month. Although the resolution was passed 24 years ago, Native Americans have a legacy of military service that spans the nation's history.

Many tribes were involved in the War of 1812, and they fought for both sides as auxiliary troops in the Civil War. Native Americans have served in every major American conflict and continue to serve in operations around the globe.

Although many have served, finding their direct impact to the Air Force as a demographic is difficult according to Gary Boyd, the Air Education and Training Command Historian.

"Native Americans were not segregated, as were other groups, with regard to military aviation," Boyd said. "They were blended into units making it difficult to track their true impact. It is a substantial history nonetheless."

One such Native American had a lasting impact on Air Force history.

Maj. Gen. Clarence Leonard Tinker was named commander of the 7th Air Force in Hawaii after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In January 1942, he was promoted to major general making him the first Native American in the U.S. Army to attain that rank. Tinker died in June of that year while leading a force of Liberator bombers on a raid to Wake Island. He was the first American general to die in World War II. On Oct. 14, 1942, the Oklahoma City Air Depot was named Tinker Field in his honor. The installation officially became Tinker Air Force Base on Jan. 13, 1948.

Native Americans have served in uniform for more than two centuries. According to Defense Department statistics, they have the highest per-capita commitment of any ethnic population to serve in the armed forces. Some feel that it is a tradition and part of their heritage to serve in uniform. One Air Force veteran's lineage of service extends over 100 years.

"My great-great-grandfather was the last Comanche chief, Quanah Parker. I don't know much about my great-grandpa but I know he served in World War I," said Christine Fink, a former Air Force photojournalist. "My grandpa, Clifford Clark, was in the Navy … It wasn't until a few years ago I found out he was a Seabee, which I am very excited about because I was able to photograph Seabees in Africa."

Fink commented that there is great honor in her tribe for people who have served in uniform.

"I definitely am proud to be a veteran as a Comanche," Fink said. "My tribe takes real pride in those who have served. They have a memorial of all their veterans and a bigger memorial for the Comanche code talkers."

Brought to popular attention by the 2002 movie "Windtalkers," were Native American Soldiers and Marines who used their knowledge of native languages as a basis to transmit coded messages. Although the movie focuses primarily on Navajo code talkers, according to the National Museum of the American Indian, many other tribes were represented in both world wars to include the Cherokee, Cheyenne, Hopi, Meskwaki and Comanche tribes.

"Most people have heard of the Navajo code talkers, but I feel like the Comanches have a very interesting story as well," Fink noted. "One of them was my great uncle."

According to the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, 17 Comanche code talkers enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War II. Fourteen were sent to fight in the European Theater and of those, 13 Comanche code talkers landed on the beach on D-Day. Although several were wounded in battle, all Comanche code talkers survived the war.

While code talkers are some of the more recognized Native Americans, many have served in other roles during military service; some of whom have made the ultimate sacrifice.

To date, 28 Native Americans have received the Medal of Honor with the most recent being Army Pfc. Charles George. He received this honor during the Korean War. A portion of his medal citation reads, "While in the process of leaving the trenches, an enemy soldier hurled a grenade into their midst. Pfc. George shouted a warning to one comrade, pushed the other soldier out of danger, and, with full knowledge of the consequences, unhesitatingly threw himself upon the grenade, absorbing the full blast of the explosion."

The sacrifice of Native Americans in the face of ultimate danger is a testament to their fighting spirit and devotion to their comrades. They leave a legacy of military service filled with honor, commitment and service.