About three years ago, working through the Episcopal Church in Navajoland, I began meeting with a small group of Navajo military veterans in Arizona and New Mexico. Since then my work has evolved into a number of very positive relationships with a much larger group of Navajo veterans. Many of the older veterans had Vietnam service, while the younger vets had Cold War, Gulf War, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom service. Once in their midst, it is impossible for even the most detached stranger, to overlook the passion the Navajo vets have for their service to our country. I have experienced their unmistakable conviction that military service was both an obligation and an honor.
During my second trip to be with the Navajo veterans, they took me to one of their most esteemed locations: the veterans cemetery where the U.S. Marine Corps World War II veterans known as “Code Talkers” are buried. Most of what I know about the Code Talkers I learned from the 2002 movie “Windtalkers” which dramatized their very significant contributions to the war effort. In 1942, 29 Navajo men were recruited by the Marine Corps to serve as communicators in the Pacific Theater. Their job was to use the “Din-e” (Navajo) language to create a combat communications code that was unbreakable by the Japanese. Their service as communicators has come to be recognized as having been one of the important turning points in the Pacific for U.S. forces.
With this in mind, I had the idea that I would be seeing a carefully cared for national monument and cemetery. You know the type. So often on Memorial Day we see and hear tributes to the sacrifices of veterans against the background of Arlington National Cemetery. At all times Arlington is stunning with its rows uniform white grave markers and deep green manicured grass. I served on active duty for nearly 30 years and have seen my share of veteran’s cemeteries. Hence, I thought I knew what to expect. Did I ever get a shock when I arrived at the Navajo Veterans Cemetery!
Coming over a hill near Fort Defiance, Arizona, my first sight was an almost barren hill dominated by numerous American flags. The closer we got, the more I realized that not only were the flags of unequal size and quality, but also that many were significantly worn, and some even tattered. Then I saw the white grave markers, perhaps the only thing in common with an Arlington-like cemetery. Hardly any of them were aligned in rows. There was no grass covering the ground. Most of the ground surface was barren sand or dirt, with a smattering of gravel upon some of the graves. I was speechless. When we got to the area of the cemetery where the code talkers were buried, I found the condition of the graves to be only slightly better.
Though I could go into much greater detail about the condition of this veterans cemetery, I think you get the point. Is this any way for us to recognize the sacrifices of military members who risked their lives in service to their country? In a 2012 interview the late Code Talker Chester Nez, speaking about why he became a Marine, said, “I had no choice. The Japanese had attacked my country. I had to join the Marines and be a warrior.” As a country we have an obligation to honor such a depth of commitment.
Above all else I am a person of faith who belongs to a community of faith. As such, I believe that we have no choice but to honor such sacrificial service. A central theological axiom by means of which I attempt to live is to acknowledge that because God blesses us, and God does just that, we ought to use every opportunity to bless others by demonstrating our thanks to those who serve us. With the Navajo Code Talkers, though we may have said thanks to them and their survivors, we are far from any demonstration that our thanks is genuine.
As people of God we are the divine agents of the one who created and sustains us. This Memorial Day as we recognize the lasting contributions of others such as the Navajo Code Talkers, I encourage you to find ways to not only give thanks with your lips but also to demonstrate your thanks from the heart of your being. I know for a fact that the Navajo veterans are waiting to see how we will demonstrate our thanks and appreciation for their ancestors and for them. Do something!
— The Rt. Rev. James Magness is bishop suffragan for Federal Ministries of The Episcopal Church.