Respecting the fallen

Army of volunteers tidies up vet cemetery

By Shondiin Silversmith
Navajo Times

FORT DEFIANCE, Nov. 14, 2013

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(Times photo — Shondiin Silversmith)

TOP: Richard Segay, U.S. Army Vietnam veteran from Fort. Defiance, Ariz., rakes leaves into a tractor during a clean-up day at the Fort Defiance Veterans Cemetery last Friday.

BOTTOM: Veteran Kyle Whiteeagle from Window Rock wields a new weapon, a weed whacker, in the fight to keep the Fort Defiance Veterans Cemetery tidy last Friday. He said, "Who else can take better care of us then us veterans?" Which is why he was there.

Armed with weed whackers, shovels, rakes and gloves, over a dozen people marched into the Fort Defiance Veterans Cemetery Friday with one mission: clean it up.

As a way to show their fellow veterans they are not forgotten, members of the Tsehootsooi Twin Warrior Society banded together to host the all-day clean-up.

The Tsehootsooi Twin Warrior Society started in 1989. It was named "Twin Warrior Society" to honor both male and female veterans, said Bill Watchmen, society member and a U.S. Army veteran.

Society member Eugene Atcitty, U.S. Navy veteran, said the event was hosted because the veterans who have been buried at cemetery, and all veterans past and present, are very important.

"There is love there for their fellow comrades," Atcitty said. He added it was nice seeing all the people come out and clean the cemetery, not only cleaning their family's graves but those of other families.

"We are living in a country where people died for our freedom," Atcitty added.

Earl W. Milford, society member and U.S. Army Vietnam veteran, said being able to clean up the grave sites for fellow veterans makes him feel better because when he returned from the war he suffered from survivors' guilt, always asking why he came back and others didn't.

"To this day I still get feelings of survivors' guilt and working here in a way makes me feel better that they're not forgotten, that I'm doing something," Milford said, adding that whenever the Twin Warrior Society does a burial for a fellow comrade he likes to remind them of a saying from an unknown soldier in World War II, "I am not afraid to die for my country, but I am afraid to be forgotten."

Pulling out tumbleweed after tumbleweed, the clean-up volunteers showed their respect for each fallen warrior by cleaning up his or her resting place.

"I think it's the right thing to do to pay tribute to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for us, for our freedom," said Pastor Lance Hawley, who served in the U.S. Army during peace time, adding that this is a way to help keep these soldiers' memory alive.

"It makes me feel proud that I have brothers in arms. I may not know them by name or by face but they're veterans like I am, and they were willing to give up themselves and I'm willing to do what I can to pay it back," Hawley added.

Virginia Joe from Natural Bridge, Ariz. was out cleaning the cemetery with her husband Benny Joe, U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, and her grandson Izlynvario Joe, 4.

"It's worth it," Virginia said ofn coming out to the cemetery clean-up. "They're always in my heart."

"I just want to clean up their grave so they're not forgotten," said Benny, adding that he has a lot of comrades buried at the cemetery, and it's hard being there because they were his friends.

For U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam veteran Leslie Nelson Sr. and his wife Etta Nelson, cleaning up the veterans cemetery has been their yearly ritual. Last year they were the only two to volunteer.

"We come out here every year and help clean up. Just going around and looking at some of the graves, they've fallen in and some of them don't have names on them," Nelson said, adding that should be reason enough for people to come out and help.

"I have a lot of respect for the military. If it wasn't for them we wouldn't be standing here," Etta said. She said she was there in honor of her husband, son, granddaughter, niece and uncle, who are all veterans.

"It's a shame how our veterans cemetery looks," Etta added as she pointed to a grave that had a hole burrowed into the foot of the grave.

Nelson said he has some friends, his uncle and brother buried at the cemetery, which gives him an incentive to help out.

"Just out of respect I come out here, and show they are not forgotten," Nelson added as he pointed at a grave with no headstone.

Nelson said he understands that more people would probably come out if it weren't for traditional Navajo taboos around death and corpses, but "to me if they really loved their dad, mother, sister, brother, uncle, and grandpa they would come out here and help clean up just out of respect."

"A lot of people don't know what these guys went through," Nelson said, his emotions cracking his voice as he looked at the graves around him. According to Nelson, there are about 500 to 700 grave sites at the cemetery.

Atcitty said that people who participated in the clean-up were able to clean at least 150 feet back from the front with the manpower they had. Every year the society hosts a clean-up event at the cemetery, sometimes on Memorial Day.

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