It has been more than five decades since Fred Bennett and 27 other young men left Hoonah, headed for the jungles of Vietnam. Like many of his peers, Bennett had never left his village at the time. He hardly knew why the U.S. was fighting a war half a world away.
But that didn’t stop Bennett and thousands of other Alaska Natives and American Indians from enlisting. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, more than 42,000 Native Americans fought in Vietnam, a fact U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, referred to as “a special kind of patriotism” Thursday.
That special patriotism didn’t protect them from the horrors they encountered in Southeast Asia, horrors that still haunt them today.
“The Vietnam War really affected us, and it affects me 51 years later,” Bennett said, speaking as a panelist at a Sealaska Heritage Institute event honoring Southeast Alaska’s Native warriors.
During the event, SHI showed “Hunting in Wartime”, a documentary about the 28 Hoonah Natives who fought in Vietnam. Five of the veterans featured in the film, including Bennett, participated in a panel discussion following the film.
Several speakers — including Bennett, Royal Hill and even Sullivan — talked about how poorly Vietnam vets, especially Alaska Natives, were treated upon returning home.
“Alaska Natives were out fighting for their country, and when they came home they weren’t facing a country that was fighting for them,” Sullivan said.
Bennett recalled being called a “baby killer” when he got back to the U.S., a treatment he said his peers experienced as well. People were so cruel to him, he said he started lying about his veteran status on job applications. Like having a criminal record, he said it was hurting his chances of being employed.
Sullivan, a member of the Marine Corps Reserve, said that veterans are now treated better than they used to be, in large part due to the efforts of Vietnam vets. They made a conscious effort to turn the public perception of veterans around, he said.
There is still room for improvement when it comes to Native veterans though, if you ask Hill.
“You wish that over time things would change,” he said. “But from what I’ve seens over the years, especially watching this election, I can see this country is still dragging our feet when it comes to certain things, especially with Native people.”
Sullivan spoke briefly about how he hopes to make things better for Alaska Native veterans by passing the Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment Equity Act, a piece of legislation he is sponsoring. If passed, the act will extend eligibility for Alaska Native veterans who missed the chance to apply for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act because they were fighting in Vietnam.
SHI President Rosita Worl also promised to help Alaska Native veterans during the event Thursday.
“You are going to live in the hearts of our people,” she told the panelists. “I promise you that we are going to write about you. … We are going to stand by you in a way that we never stood beside you in the past.”
• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.