Tohatchi students provide breakfast to thank, honor veterans

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

TOHATCHI, N.M., November 15, 2012

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(Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)

Willie Sandoval, member of the Tohatchi Veterans Organization, folds the American flag while his comrades assist him on Nov. 9.

W ith a flag from World War II on display, students from Tohatchi High School honored veterans for their service.

For Sister Pat Bietsch, this was the first time the flag was unfolded since it was presented at her father's funeral in 1983.

Bietsch is a member of Native YoutHope, which cosponsored the Nov. 9 event, and brought the flag to hang in front of the lectern.

Members of the Tohatchi Veterans Organization later refolded and re-presented it to Bietsch.

"I feel really honored and I'm glad," she said. "I think it will make me feel even closer to the Navajo veterans."

Developing that connection was one goal of the event, which included a breakfast of pancakes, sausage and scrambled eggs along with coffee, water and juice for veterans and their families.

Among those veterans who attended was Army veteran Tommy L. Sandman, of Sheepsprings, N.M., who wore his cap representing the Shiprock Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9517.

Sandman served in the Army from 1984 to 1988 followed by service in the New Mexico Army National Guard from 2005 to 2009.

"I heard it was a good event and I wanted to be here this year," he said then added that his father, Leonard Sandman, was a Marine Corps veteran, so the younger Sandman was also honoring his father's service.

After the flags were posted, Tohatchi High Principal Ethel Manuelito told students that her father received a Purple Heart while serving in World War II but never talked about what that medal meant and when the family asked, he declined to explain.

She said they did not know what he had to endure during his military service until that information was disclosed after his death.

"Now I know what they go through and what they have do in order to protect our country, in order for us to be free today," Manuelito said. "The veterans have done so much for us and I don't think that we realize it until we have a veteran in our home or we see these honoring ceremonies, then it gives us a better idea of how much we need to respect them and honor them for what they did."

Bessie Yellowhair-Simpson, an executive staff assistant for the Office of the President and Vice President, was at the event on behalf of President Ben Shelly.

"We do appreciate our veterans throughout the United States...and give them thanks for their service and we thank those who are serving today," she said.

As part of her speech, Yellowhair-Simpson shared her husband's story about returning from the Vietnam War.

She said when her husband returned to the United States, it was not one of celebration but protest with people throwing eggs and tomatoes and carrying signs that stated the soldiers were not welcomed home.

It has taken years for her husband to talk about his service but when he does she listens and she encouraged the students to listen when a veteran shares their story.

"If you listen to them, they will tell you the stories," she said.

In addition to honoring the veterans, the event also focused on talking to the students about education and social issues like alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and gang violence.

Pastor Martin Eastridge spoke to the audience as an Army veteran and as leader of the United Pentecostal Indian Church in Tohatchi and his speech was a mixture of honoring veterans and encouraging students to fulfill their potential.

"Let me tell you, to be a veteran is an honor," Eastridge said. "These men that sit here beside you, they are the ones who are my heroes. There's no football player, there's no basketball player, there's no singer that is a hero. These are our heroes today."

He told the students that they hold the key to making their dreams and ideas come to life.

"Don't just settle to walk the streets of Gallup," he said. "Get out of here, go see the world."

Adding to Eastridge's comments was Miss Navajo Nation Leandra Thomas, who encouraged the students to stay in school and develop strong self-esteem.

Thomas said she grew up in a home that lacked electricity and running water but that experienced shaped her into the person she is now.

"When you become acquainted with other people, don't be ashamed of who you are, respect yourself, respect your family. Tell people who you are and where you come from, those stories make you interesting," she said.

In relation to the event, Thomas told the students to respect veterans and to hear their stories and experiences.

"There is no words beyond, 'Thank you,'" she said.

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