Tribal Government & News

Veterans Summit honors the 'ultimate sacrifice' of Gold Star families

07.12.2019 Dean Rhodes Events
Gold Star father and Yakama Nation Veterans Affairs Program Manager Shawn Marceau wipes a tear while sharing the story about finding out about the death of his son, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Joe Michael Jackson, during the second day of the Veterans Summit: Gathering of Warriors held at Uyxat Powwow Grounds on Friday, July 12. (Photo by Timothy J. Gonzalez/Smoke Signals)

By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

Earning a gold star in school is usually a positive experience.

Earning a gold star as a military family definitely isn’t.

Gold Star families are so designated because they have lost a family member – husband, wife, sibling or child -- in battle.

The seventh annual Veterans Summit: Gathering of Warriors held at uyxat Powwow Grounds on Thursday and Friday, July 11-12, heard from two Gold Star parents who spoke about losing their sons in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yakama Nation Veterans Affairs Program Manager Shawn Marceau (Blackfeet) described the heartbreaking events that occurred after his 22-year-old son’s death.

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Joe Michael Jackson’s vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device during Operation Enduring Freedom in the Helmand province of Afghanistan on April 24, 2011.

Marceau said he went from being a Blue Star father (child in battle) to a Silver Star father (child wounded in battle) to a Gold Star father in the space of 20 minutes.

“It is the highest honor,” Marceau tearfully said during the Veterans Summit on Friday morning. “Even a higher honor than my own service.”

Marceau served in the Marine Corps from 1990 to ’94 in Desert Storm and Somalia.

Marceau recalled how he gave his son a coin before he was deployed to Afghanistan, saying that as long as his son possessed the coin that his father and family would be with him.

“That coin was blessed by a lot of people,” Marceau said.

However, those blessings did not prevent what all military parents dread: The knock on the door by two Marines wearing full green dress uniforms to deliver the terrible news.

“The next 10 days were a total blur,” Marceau recalled.

He said that he takes solace in knowing that his son’s death occurred before Osama Bin Laden was killed in May 2011. “There was still a purpose when my son was killed. He was still hunting the bad guy who did such a terrible thing to our nation,” he said. “All of this has changed my life. … Gold Star families have made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Marceau was joined by Shirley Schmunk, who lost her son Jeremiah on July 9, 2004, during an ambush in Iraq while he was deployed with the Army National Guard out of Washington state.

After dealing with her grief, she formed Time of Remembrance, a nonprofit organization to help other Gold Star parents deal with their emotions and loss. The organization has a Facebook page.

Both Marceau and Schmunk received standing ovations and hugs following their presentations.

The seventh annual event, first held in Grand Ronde in 2013, started Thursday afternoon with the Grand Ronde Honor Guard bringing in the colors. Tribal Council member Steve Bobb Sr. carried the U.S. flag, Al Miller the Oregon flag, Raymond Petite the eagle staff, Louis Rober the MIA/POW flag and Rich VanAtta the Grand Ronde flag.

Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy, Tribal Council members Denise Harvey and Kathleen George and Secretary Jon A. George on drum accompanied 13 veterans on to the newly installed artificial turf at the powwow grounds. Tribal Council member Jack Giffen Jr. arrived shortly after the opening ceremony.

Navy veteran Nick Sixkiller (Cherokee) reprised his role as master of ceremonies, calling up Charles Tailfeathers (Blackfeet) with the Native Wellness Institute to talk about military trauma and reconnecting to healing.

Army Ranger John Courtney also spoke about his traumatic experiences while serving in Iraq and his arduous road to recovery when he returned to the Warm Springs Reservation.

Veteran Gil Calac (Paiute Mission) then shared his story of trauma following his return from the Vietnam War and encouraged attendees to develop some kind of faith to get themselves through the pain.

“After seven years of this summit, now it really makes sense to me to help another veteran heal,” Tailfeathers said.

Shalene Joseph (A’aniiih) and Josh Cocker (Tongan/Kiowa) from the Indigenous 20something Project then encouraged attendees to play several “getting to know you” games before they were offered the opportunity to participate in gender-based sweats and sharing circles.

The bulk of the Veterans Summit occurred on Friday with Tribal Council member Steve Bobb Sr., a Vietnam War-era Marine Corps veteran, welcoming perhaps the most attendees ever to a summit. Eighty-six people registered this year and Social Services Director Dana Ainam said she thought more people were in attendance than in previous years.

“You are appreciated more than you can ever know,” Bobb said before giving the invocation. “You are the unsung heroes of this great nation. … We hope this event will bring you peace and a sense of healing.”

Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Kelly Fitzpatrick called the powwow grounds a “fabulous venue” and said that events like the Veterans Summit help her small department aid the more than 300,000 veterans in the state. “Our partnerships are indispensable,” she said.

Terry Bentley (Karuk), a 32-year employee with the federal Veterans Affairs Department and regular Veterans Summit participant, thanked the Grand Ronde Tribe for continuing to host the summit and announced that her federal department is forming a Tribal Veterans Advisory Committee that will give Native American veterans a seat at the table with a direct link to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Tailfeathers and Air Force veteran Linda Woods (Ottawa/Chippewa) performed the traditional POW/MIA ceremony to remember those who never returned from America’s military conflicts.

Woods also brought her eagle staff, which she recently took to Normandy in France and visited five D-Day beaches.

Friday events also concentrated on one of the main goals of the Veterans Summit – getting veterans the benefits that they earned from their military service.

A Veterans Affairs panel discussion featured Fitzpatrick, VA Portland Women Veterans Program Manager Sarah Suniga, VA Portland Primary Care Division Director Valdez Bravo, National Cemetery Administration representative Jeff Applegate and Veterans Benefit Administration Public Contact Team Coach Kurtis Harris.

After lunch, scheduled breakout sessions covered such nuts-and-bolts issues as disability compensation claims, spousal and dependent benefits and a Tribal veteran representative workshop.

Surrounding the powwow grounds dancing circle also were a variety of resource tables that included Grand Ronde Health & Wellness employees offering free dental checkups and supplies. In addition, the Tribe’s mobile diabetes clinic was in attendance and the Tribe’s Emergency Management staff were on hand.

Vietnam War-era Marine Corps veteran Reyn Leno, who committed the Tribe to hosting the Veterans Summit in 2012 while he was on Tribal Council, said the seventh incarnation was well-attended and remains worthwhile.

“I always walk away from this saying if you help one veteran in the two days you do up here, then it’s a success,” Leno said. “If you can change a person’s life just doing this type of stuff, it’s a success for me because getting veterans to come forward is difficult. Usually it is their families doing it for them, not them. If we can help one veteran change his life and get what he has coming, I think it is a success.”