Native Sun News: Young tribal members joining National Guard

The following story was written and reported by Christina Rose, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Young National Guards officers posed for a photo at the Lakota Nation Invitational in January. Left to right, Megan Howe, a junior at Crow Creek High School, Michaela Swanson, a 2012 graduate of Crow Creek High School, SPC Andre Crow Eagle, a graduate of St. Francis High School, Tiffany Coleman, a graduate of Lower Brule High School, now works with the Lower Brule Fire Agency, and Allison Morrisette, 2012 graduate of Bennett County High School.

From challenges to commitment, students talk about the National Guard
By Christina Rose
Native Sun News, Staff writer

RAPID CITY – Back in the days of the Viet Nam War, a kid who got into trouble could choose to go into the military or go to jail. Today that choice is no longer an option. According to US Army National Guard Sergeant First Class Richard Kirkpatrick, “Today we want the better people. We want the people who are there because they want to be.”

Some of the youngest recruits join as a way to pay for college while learning a skill, and yet others are just looking to live a better life. The decision to join took some into active duty, where the National Guard became more than a leg up and is now their career.

For the new recruits, hope and anticipation are on the horizon. “I will be leaving for Basic Training three days after school gets out,” said Megan Howe, 17 years old, from Crow Creek, who will be a heavy construction equipment operator with the 200th Engineer Company out of Chamberlain. “There are a lot of kids, boys and girls, on Crow Creek that enlist. I want to see the world. I have only been away from home a week or two at the most, and I will be going to Fort Sill, OK for nine weeks this summer.”

Asked if she is nervous about going so far from home for so long, she said, “Once you enlist, you go through all kinds of emotions. But the number one emotion is pride.”

When Tiffany Coleman, 21, began her stint in 2009, she didn’t know she would end up seeking an eight-year commitment. Working now as a firefighter for the BIA in Lower Brule, she believes the Guard gave her the confidence and courage to do things she couldn’t do before. Within the Guard, Coleman is a Bridge Engineer with the 200th Engineer Company out of Pierre. At home, Coleman is working towards becoming a police officer. “I am still enjoying the Guard. It gave me the strength to resist drinking and smoking. It helps you get a positive attitude. I try to stay positive because I want to be a good role model for the kids, the kids ask me about it all the time.”

For some, joining the Guard can be a scary proposition. According to Kirkpatrick, at least one recruit, Andre Crow Eagle, took his time, almost two years, before deciding to join. After he did, he had a moment when he wondered if he’d made the right decision. Crow Eagle, from St. Francis, Rosebud, said that there were many reasons he joined the Guard and while he is very glad he did, some of his early moments were overwhelming.

Crow Eagle had already graduated from high school and taken some college classes but he found them too stressful. And while he enjoys watching sports, playing sports was too competitive. Having abandoned college, he came home depressed. “I went and talked to Richard,” Crow Eagle said. “I told him, I’m going to do it. I was afraid if I didn’t, I would end like a lot of people around here, without a job, living off EBT, drinking. I used to drink when I was younger, but I don’t anymore. Before my training, drinking made me feel confident, but then afterwards it made me feel worse. After my training, I felt I could do anything.”

Remembering his early days in the Guard, Crow Eagle took a deep breath. “When I first got in, I hated it. The first few days of Basic I wondered what I had done. I thought Oh crap! This is really going to happen!”

“In basic they break you down.” Crow Eagle described the rigorous training schedule that started before the crack of dawn and included physical training throughout the day. Exercises, sprints, muscle failure with push-ups until he could do them no longer.

By about the middle of training, Crow Eagle began to see how the Guard was challenging him, how much he was learning, how much stronger and better he felt about himself. That was more than five years ago, and now Crow Eagle is a Carpentry and Masonry Specialist with the 155th Engineer Company out of Rapid City. He said he now has a real sense of hope about his future. He is back at Sinte Gleska University, studying to be a math teacher. Majoring in Youth Education, with a minor in Middle School Education, he said, “One of main reasons I want to be a teacher is that we bring in a lot of Teach for America teachers, and they leave after two years, before they can really become part of the community. I will be able to stay here.”

About the Guard, Crow Eagle said, “I love it. I wouldn’t change anything about it. I am really proud that I come from South Dakota and even more proud I am from the reservation. I like being able to help my community and my state. Whenever they ask for volunteers, like during the floods in June 2001, I was there helping out for 11 weeks when I could have left there after three weeks. And the money was good, too!”

Allison Morrisette joined the Guard for the adventure of it all. “When I was in Missouri for Basic Training, there were so many different races; it was such a cool experience. There were people from Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, Hispanics, it was crazy.” Morrisette said that for her, the Guard has helped her feel a part of a brotherhood and sisterhood. “I don't think anybody can understand the bond of an army soldier to army soldier. You get the feeling right after Basic Training. It’s amazing.”

Kirkpatrick said that Basic Training is where the young recruits come to understand the Guard. “Most kids make it just fine. Some think it’s harder than they thought and some think it’s easier. We start training even before Basic; they come in once a month. When summer comes, that is the 10 week period they go to their skill training.”

According to Kirkpatrick, teachers see a difference in the students who join the Guard. “They say the kids are much more respectful, and their organization skills are more developed. They come back with a better feeling about themselves, they feel stronger about themselves. The kids are more prepared to perform in jobs.”

In order to have a successful tour in the Guard, the recruits must abide by certain rules. There are random drug tests performed regularly and once a youth enlists in Basic, they have to stay in high school. “If they drop out of high school we don’t want them,” Kirkpatrick said. “Being in the Guard does keep kids in school and if they get caught doing drugs, they get kicked out and it ruins their entire military career.”

While traditionally Natives have been heavily represented in the military, not all families are happy to see their children join. “I have seen kids who got a lot of grief back home about joining but they followed their dreams and goals and were a success. I know kids who have come in and wanted to go to college and through the benefits of the program; they graduated without a single student loan. It’s a choice; it’s another option and another door. You learn all kinds of skills that will help you get the jobs you want in the civilian world,” Kirkpatrick said, adding, “You will never look back and say I wish I hadn’t done that.”

As one who made a long term commitment, Kevin King, 27, looks back at his years in the Guard, and said he feels the same way. After attending the School of Mines, he transferred to Black Hills State University, and graduated with a degree in Political Science in 2009. That same year, he completed Officer Candidate School; progressed to 2nd Lieutenant, became a platoon leader, and eventually learned to fly helicopters for the Guard, which he does to this day. King is now working full time for Guard, with active duty orders in Rapid City, helping with aviation readiness.

“It’s one of those jobs I would never have planned when I was younger,” King said. “But the mental stimulation, the challenges, they are teaching me to be a leader. It has been fulfilling beyond anything I could imagine. The soldiers in my unit are really great, they don’t get enough credit. They do their job well, with a passion and without a lot of recognition.”

Looking back at his childhood, King said the Guard has helped him maintain a positive attitude. About growing up between Pine Ridge and other areas, he said, “My time on the reservation was nothing but happy memories. It was all about dancing in powwows, watching TV with my family, riding horses, and connecting with my family. I might have been happy no matter what I had chosen as a career, but I think I am happier because of the Guard. I made a six year commitment but I could see myself making it a career.”

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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