Marine remembered for his love of rodeo, family, country

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

FARMINGTON, March 4, 2010

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Lance Cpl. Alejandro "Pancho" Yazzie liked horses from an early age.

"He loved horses so much that when he was young, I was his first horse," said Ferlando Bitsui, Yazzie's older brother, recalling how the two would play horse and rider.

Bitsui shared this and other stories with about 600 people who gathered to pay homage to Yazzie, 23, who was killed Feb. 16 in Marjah, Afghanistan. His funeral was held Friday at the Farmington Civic Center.

An array of 21 flags, mostly the stars and stripes, lined the entrance to the civic center as Yazzie's coffin was carried by members of a Marine Corps honor guard. Yazzie's family entered just minutes earlier.

Family members nearly filled the front section of the auditorium, its lights dimmed in tribute to the flag-draped coffin on display. His stoic young face looked out from two portraits displayed on the stage, one showing him in bull-riding gear and one in his Marine uniform.

In a service filled with speeches and songs, Bitsui recalled another story expressing Yazzie's childhood love of rodeo.

"One time, he roped me and gave me a rope burn (on the neck)," said Bitsui, who was 9 at the time. "So people thought I had a hickey."

It provoked a rare moment of laughter from listeners who otherwise sat somber as the nearly three-hour funeral service unfolded.

Yazzie, who was in his second year of enlistment, had been in Afghanistan just since January. He was a combat engineer assigned to 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force. According to the tally kept by President Joe Shirley Jr.'s office, Yazzie is the 11th Navajo soldier killed in the Middle East since Sept. 11, 2001.

Some attendees showed their respect by wearing military or military-inspired apparel, including his mother, Eva Yazzie, who wore a dress made of camouflage material.

Yazzie was Hashk'aa Hadzohó (Yucca Fruit Strung in a Line Clan), according to family spokesman Raymond Jones, who did not know his other clans. The family has so far not responded to the Navajo Times' requests for comment.

Yazzie is survived by his wife, Kalandra Rae Roanhorse-Yazzie; parents, Eva and Johnson Yazzie; one older brother, Ferlando Lorin Bitsui; two younger brothers, Rodello Holyan and Chance Holyan; and a younger sister, Rayona Holyan.

His grandparents are Minnie Yazzie and the late Harry Yazzie, also of Rock Point.

Bitsui also talked about Yazzie's physical toughness, first evident when he was a toddler and was stung by a "big hairy, enormous, gigantic bumblebee."

"He didn't even cry. He just laughed, picked it up and let it go," Bitsui said.

President Shirley, the only Navajo Nation official to speak at the funeral, took a more serious tone and offered some philosophical points regarding life and death.

"The prayer is that one day the killing will stop and all of our soldiers will come home," he said, speaking for nearly 15 minutes first in English, then in Navajo.

"I don't know if we will ever win the war against wrong. In the annals of history, many wars have been fought and many soldiers have been lost," Shirley said.

Afterward, he presented Yazzie's wife with a plaque honoring her husband's service. An officer in uniform also presented her with a Purple Heart.

Of the five speeches that were given, only one drew applause, that given by Cpl. Kurtice Maguire, who served with Yazzie.

He said Yazzie was a good Marine and never complained about the orders handed down from commanding officers. In addition, Yazzie had one ability in particular that made him stand out from his fellow Marines, especially when they would gather around a bonfire.

"Yazzie was the only one who could ever light the fires," Maguire said, sparking the audience to laughter.

"He gave it all for his family friends and country. Yazzie, we can only hope that future Marines will be half the Marine you are and we will strive to follow the examples you left us with," Maguire said in conclusion, holding back tears.

Yazzie, a member of Rock Point Chapter, is buried in Sweetwater, Ariz.

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