Memorial marks 10 years since Piestewa's passing

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

PHOENIX, March 28, 2013

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(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Army veteran Joseph Hudson, of El Paso, Texas, gives Percy Piestewa a hug Saturday after making a speech at the Lori Piestewa Memorial sunrise service in Phoenix. Hudson was a friend of Percy's daughter Lori Piestewa.

SECOND FROM TOP: With her daughter's portrait in the background, Percy Piestewa waits for a group photo of the Gold Star families at the Lori Piestewa Memorial sunrise service Saturday in Phoenix.

Ken Gatke from Tonopah, Ariz., walks by and quietly views a photograph of fallen soldier Lori Piestewa during the Lori Piestewa Memorial banquet at the KROC Corps Salvation Army Center in Phoenix. Piestewa, who was a member of the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company, was killed on March 23, 2003 in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

A s Jaylen Scott stood on top of Piestewa Peak, he appeared as a small dot against the sky.

Scott ran to the top of the peak in honor of his aunt, Army Spc. Lori Piestewa of Tuba City, Ariz., who at age 23 had died during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, becoming the first Native American woman to die in combat for the United States military.

"I try to honor my aunt the best way that I can and doing this is one way I can help with that," he said.

Scott was eight years old when Lori died 10 years ago but he remembers her coming to visit his family here for Christmas.

As Scott ran, he carried an eagle staff that came from Old Orbai on the Hopi Reservation and when he reached the top he let out a warrior scream, then paused to pray.

At the base of the peak, which was renamed in 2003 by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Piestewa's children, Brandon and Carla, along with their grandparents, Terry and Percy Piestewa, attended the 10th annual Piestewa Memorial sunrise service March 23.

Since their daughter's death, Terry and Percy have continued to raise Brandon and Carla in their home in Flagstaff.

The family joined other families to honor the lives and sacrifices made by their loved ones while serving in the military.

"It is a very big honor that you are here with us because this is your place too," Terry said. "It has our name on it, but it is your place."

Terry is a Vietnam veteran and wore those words on his baseball cap along with a turquoise Pendleton vest adorned with military pins.

"I know it's hard, it's been hard for me because I've seen the death in the Army and I've seen the people that I knew who are not here with us," he said.

Terry briefly paused then explained that as a Hopi, taking another person's life is not the way of life, but he took a different path by joining the service.

"I'm proud to be a veteran but yet I am ashamed," he said while choking back tears as Brandon placed a hand on his grandfather's back.

Percy told the Gold Star families that they share the mutual emotion and experience of loss, but by attending the event they continue to support each other.

"We have always said and continue to say, we feel Lori's purpose was to bring people together in unity and harmony," Percy said.

Piestewa was a member of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company. In 2003, the company was traveling in a convoy through the desert but took a wrong turn, then ran into an ambush in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

Eleven American soldiers were killed, nine were wounded, and six were captured and spent 22 days as prisoners of war.

Three of these former POWs attended the sunrise memorial service - Jessica Lynch, Shoshana Johnson and Joseph Hudson. In previous years Patrick Miller joined them but he is deployed to Afghanistan.

The trio stood close together on stage before Hudson took to the microphone to address the audience.

"Ten years have passed and today I took it hard. This marks a decade where we lost our fallen comrades and for that, we will never forget," Hudson said. "Our memories may fade but the pain never goes away."

Hudson noted Miller's absence then asked the audience to pray for his safe return.

"It's our responsibility to pray for him so he can return home safely because he has enough awards on his chest, he doesn't need another one," Hudson said.

He then explained that part of the healing process for Lynch, Johnson, Miller and him included becoming members of the Piestewa family.

When Hudson's mother died in 2007, he did not know Terry and Percy would be there.

"I was amazed, honored that they showed up and mom (Percy) gave me a big hug and whispered in my ear, 'I did not give birth to you but you will be my son,'" Hudson recalled of his mother's funeral.

Lynch, who attended with her daughter Dakota Ann, mentioned Lori continues to be with them each day.

"It has been a tough 10 years for all of us," Lynch said. "Coming back this year, I think we've all felt that survivors' guilt of being here and Lori not making it home."

In a morning filled with speeches and music, a sincere moment came when Vietnam veteran Stuart Stinaff, of Phoenix, and who has attended the memorial sunrise service each year, requested to speak.

Stinaff described Lori as a "daughter of Arizona" whose memory continues to be honored.

"Few of us knew her in life but in death she has become a part of us," he said. "With the bravest of man, she selflessly gave her life in war so that others might live in peace."

This was the first year a gourd dance was held in conjunction with the memorial, which has grown from honoring Lori to include honoring other fallen heroes and their families.

The gourd dance and memorial dinner were held March 22 at the Salvation Army Kroc Corps Community Center in south central Phoenix.

At the end of the gourd dance, an honor song was sung while the Piestewa family led the former POWs and Gold Star family members around the arena.

Piestewa Memorial Committee member Ernest Martinez said the two-day event was created to recognize and show appreciation to the Gold Star mothers and families who have lost loved ones in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Along with that is to keep the memory of our fallen heroes alive, we will never forget them," Martinez said.

At the dinner, former television reporter Mary Kim Titla served as master of ceremony, a service she has provided since the first gathering.

"That they will never be forgotten, that is the purpose of this memorial," Titla said.

Among the dignitaries in the audience were Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim, Hopi Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa and Navajo Code Talker Joe Hosteen Kellwood.

Joe, 91, and his brother Roy Kellwood, 97, attended the event to honor fellow soldiers.

Joe served in the Marine Corps from 1942-1945 and served in the Pacific Theater while Roy served in the Air Force from 1942-1945 and was stationed in Italy during World War II.

The brothers are originally from Steamboat Canyon, Ariz.

"The feeling that you have, I been through the war - a hot one - I went through three campaigns," Joe said. "So I know what it is to go through life. Sometime you have a good friend and next time you have no friend, you have to get a new one."

In addition to the memorial events, the oath room at the U.S. military's processing station in Phoenix was dedicated in Piestewa's honor.

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