Today is National Navajo Code Talker Day. Twenty-nine Navajos volunteered for the Marines during a time when casualty figures in the Pacific Theater were horrific. They created an unbreakable code based on their language during and helped the U.S. retake the eastern Pacific. The Japanese had successfully cracked earlier codes, but never managed to conquer Navajo thanks to the cleverness of the code talkers. Some examples: The Navajo word for buzzard, jeeshóóʼ, was used for bomber, while the code word used for submarine, béésh łóóʼ, meant iron fish and Hitler was the “crazy white man.”
The code talkers joined the Marines for many reasons: patriotism, money, false promises: Samuel Holiday joined because, he said he believed the recruiters when they said they were going to take care of his mother: “They told me they’d pay to buy me a house like the white man’s, with running water – which I never got,” Holiday, like all the others was sworn to secrecy until 1968 when the government declassified the code.
President Reagan declared August 19th National Code Talker Day in 1982 and in 2001 George Bush presented four of the five living code talkers with the Congressional Gold Medal for their service to the country. The Navajo nation still honors them annually. Last year a Navajo elder said, “It’s important that the accomplishments of this group of men are recognized because our language was used to change the tide of the war. In Navajo society, we hold our warriors in high esteem and with this group, this is their day.” Only one original code talker, Chester Nez, remains. He lives in Albuquerque with his son. There are 40-70 other code talkers estimated still living.
I have watched with dismay recently as Twitter and other social media sites have grown increasingly negative. The word “hero” has even drawn heavy digital fire: A man purporting to be an Iraqi Freedom Vet declared that heroes didn’t work for money. And another pundit declared that Representative Joe Walsh had been right to assail Tammy Duckworth his opponent in the upcoming election. Walsh had called on listeners to believe that Duckworth couldn’t be a real hero because he believes that “real heroes” don’t talk about their accomplishments. Duckworth was a helicopter pilot who lost both legs and partial use of one arm in a war time crash. Duckworth endured grueling rehabilitation and went on to become the director of veterans affairs for Illinois. Recently, a Walsh supporter tweeted that Duckworth could never be called a hero, at least not as long as she belonged to the wrong political party. Anyone, it seems, can be muster boldness on TV, Twitter or Facebook. Drunk on attention, large or small, they attack without regard for the consequences. Boldness is not bravery.
A hero is not created on the battlefield or in the midst of crisis. A hero receives recognition for public courage, but their a selfless character and inherent nobility preceded their actions. A person who accepts a daunting assignment and does it well in spite of fear or adversity is a hero. And that definition fits those who will never have an audience to applaud their bravery.
I view teachers, healers, volunteers, warriors, community activists, poets, parents, supportive spouses. journalists, aid workers, caregivers and human rights activists as heroes. Few celebrities or sports figures are heroes for me save those that used their immense power to make a difference. As Brooke Foss Wescott said, “Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to the eyes of men. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last some crisis shows what we have become. ”
My role model heroes are: The woman down the street who spent her life raising a disabled child with love and grace; the women in my OCS class who endured harassment and abuse to be the first to pin on bars; the draftee medics and social workers I met at Brooke Army Hospital who cared for burn victims evacuated there from Vietnam who were not going to survive their injuries; the dozens of addicts, alcoholics and convicts I have known who have restarted their lives while making amends to those around them in the process; the boyfriends who shielded their lovers from the Aurora gunman; and men, like my former father-in-law, who gave up his artistic pursuits after WWII to ensure that his children would go to college in hopes it would prevent them from ever going to war.
The Tuskegee Airman, Japanese-American Soldiers, and the Navajo Code Breakers were paid for their service, but they were hardly compensated for their sacrifices. Very few of us could have performed as well in the face of brutal racism and lack of materiel and command support for missions.
Tammy Duckworth is twice a hero for her immense losses and for being a role model for anyone hoping to overcome terrible challenges. I hope she talks often and with great pride about her journey. I am hoping November brings to an end these politically motivated assaults that put to question a person’s patriotism or character of service.
We owe it to our brothers and sisters in arms, combatants and service support personnel alike, to honor their extraordinary work by welcoming them back to civilian life by finding them jobs and caring for them on their return. And by defending them, heroes all, against the bold and unappreciative among us for whatever reason. The Navajos left their reservations headed for the pacific on behalf of a country that held them in low regard. Some of them fought side by side with white marines, the first non-indians they had ever known. And they joined knowing that a third of the soldiers that would fight at places like Iwo Jima would not survive. They should have been celebrated long ago. And we should applaud all those who leave their homes and we should do it now–before they are no longer here to honor.
Today’s call to action:
Drop by the Navajo Code Talkers Museum site and give of your time, talent or a few dollars to preserve and important history.