The Vietnam War was a conflict that spanned 10 years in the 1960s and ’70s and cost the lives of 58,000 young men and women. Over the next years there will be commemorations and ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of various actions and events that occurred during the war, with veterans programs around the nation highlighting specific topics at their discretion.
On November 11, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community recognized all of its veterans in a program at the Salt River Community Building.
This year’s guest speaker was U.S. Army veteran Sterling Manuel, who served in the Vietnam War. Edward “Pacer” Reina, Veterans Representative for the Community, talked with Manuel about his experiences before asking him to speak at the Veterans Day ceremony.
“He talked about his experiences from a perspective that I had not heard from a Community member veteran,” said Reina. “His view fit into the type of mental trauma which Vietnam veterans have had to endure throughout the years: anger, frustration, bitterness—all of the negative things that would topple most people,” explained Reina. “From that perspective, I saw Sterling as someone who has not only lived with all of those bad memories, but has become successful. He remains one of the more recognizable and active veterans in the Community through his work, spiritual running and other activities.”
Manuel began his speech talking about when he was a young man serving the Community as a police officer. After being a father for only five days, he was drafted into the military. He wouldn’t be reunited with his son until the boy was two years old.
“I had my [police] captain, my chief, the [tribal] president and vice-president write letters saying I shouldn’t go,” said Manuel. “I even had the Arizona state governor write a letter. I didn’t want to go in; it’s not my war, they didn’t do anything to me, why should I kill them? But, if Uncle Sam wants you, he’s going to take you!”
After sharing a brief summary of his time in the service, Manuel talked about what it was like coming home. What at first looked like a parade for the soldiers at the Phoenix airport was in fact a group of angry protestors. “Anything they could think of throwing at us, they threw: soap, tomatoes, bottles, rocks, anything,” Manuel remembered. Upon arriving at Sky Harbor, he recalled having a bag in his hand with his civilian clothes. As he was welcomed back by his in-laws, Manuel was shedding his uniform piece by piece, disposing of the military garments in the trash, changing into his civilian clothes in a bathroom. What he didn’t know at the time was that his brother in-law was right behind him, picking everything up. For years Manuel learned to live with the poor treatment, while his frustration and anger grew. “I was so hurt,” said Manuel.
The First Recognition
Fast-forward 26 years later, on the Tohono O’odham Nation. Manuel, along with other veterans, were asked to stand up at a conference they were attending. Each veteran was recognized for their contribution to their country and Community. For the first time in 26 years, Manuel was finally recognized, with each veteran receiving an eagle feather after being blessed it. Manuel said that the years of frustration and hurt began to fall off his shoulders after receiving that feather.
“I took that feather with me everywhere. Anywhere I went, it went with me,” explained Manuel. After feeling relief, anger haunted him again after someone stole his eagle feather one day when grabbing a cup of coffee. Anger and hate began to build again, but a friend of Manuel’s came up to him and said, “Look at it this way: Maybe someone needed that feather more than you. Maybe his family needed it more than yours.” Manuel agreed his friend was right, and once again the pressure and anger began to disappear.
Manuel recalled, “When I was young, my hair was cut and I didn’t feel Indian. I was mad; I was angry. When I went to my gaga’a house, she saw how mad I was and she said to me, ‘Don’t hate; it will kill you.’” At the time, he wasn’t sure what she meant. Carrying her words with him, he wanted to honor his gaga’a and her teachings by getting an education that would help the Community.
Manuel was one of the first three Community members who graduated from Scottsdale Community College, and he has gone farther, receiving two different bachelor’s degrees. He works for the Community as a social worker.
Since then he also has overcome death of his son and currently defeating cancer. Although adversity has found Manuel many times in his life, he pushes through with fortitude. Manuel remains strong and shares the knowledge he has gained, becoming a leader for the Community. Toward the end of his speech at the veterans program, he simply stated, “I beat everything in life that hurt me.”