By Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
I had the honor of representing our nation’s military today in a ceremony that recognized 33 tribes and 216 individuals with Congressional Medals . . . Native American warriors who leveraged their native tongues to defend our nation through an “unbreakable” code. Their story is one of military legend.
Conceived in 1918, the Code Talker program eventually included more than 400 Native Americans who volunteered to defend their country. Using words from their traditional tribal languages, they developed codes to transmit messages about troop movements, enemy positions, and other critical information over radios and phone lines.
Our “Code Talkers” were highly skilled communications specialists. Their role in combat required intelligence, adaptability, grace under pressure, and bravery – key attributes handed down by their ancestors. These men endured some of our nation’s most dangerous battles and served proudly. And while we’ve learned much from their words, we can also learn from their journey from war to peace.
The physical and mental violence of war is hard on our servicemen and women. We’ve seen over the last 12 years of war that returning to a normal life after this experience can be very difficult. Thanks to remarkable advances in battlefield and post-battlefield medical care, we have a great many warriors who are alive today . . . some though, with wounds both seen and unseen who will need our support for many decades to come.
Chairman Dempsey and I are very alert to this need, which is why we support the many organizations that help our wounded warriors, and support positive steps like the Treaty on Disabilities, which will enable our wounded veterans to enjoy many of the same protections around the world that they enjoy here at home.
The Smithsonian makes it a point to note that Native American cultures have special traditions to help their warriors return home. Native American communities remember their veterans’ sacrifices forever. After World Wars I and II, most Native American Code Talkers returned to communities that were facing difficult economic times. Jobs were scarce, and so were opportunities for education and training. Some of the returning Code Talkers stayed in their communities doing whatever kind of work they could find. Others moved to cities where jobs were more plentiful. Many took advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to college or get vocational training.
The lesson for us today? The men and women who have served know about commitment and are ready to lead in communities across the nation. They are a national resource – a wellspring of intelligence, innovation, hard work, and resilience. Warriors become great not only because of their competence in battle, but because of their efforts for peace and unity and a commitment to people. They deserve our best.
We can best honor the great warriors from today’s ceremony not just with well-deserved and long overdue medals, but also with our own efforts to continue leveraging diversity and to forever honor our veterans.
For their narrative is our narrative; their journey is our journey. And as demonstrated by the Code Talkers, our future is built on their contributions to this nation’s history.
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