By Jasz Garrett
Juneau, Alaska (KINY) – Veterans Day was celebrated in different ways on Saturday, but the message remained the same—gratitude for all the sacrifices made. The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars held their annual ceremony at Centennial Hall, followed by an open house and lunch at the American Legion Post 25 in Auke Bay.
United States Coast Guard Captain John D. Cole delivered a keynote address at the ceremony.
“I personally thank you for the privilege of being able to serve in this great state. On Veterans Day we also think of those who served in combat, in conflicts so that we and our families have our freedom. We are free to live in the great state of Alaska and the greatest country in the world,” he said. “The Coast Guard has proudly served alongside our other services through war, through alongside you, in every major conflict in our history.”
Lieutenant Commander Christopher Sutton of the CHC, United States Navy gave the invocation.
Commander of the American Legion Duff Mitchell thanked Juneau’s community for their support.
“Juneau’s a really vet-friendly town. Alaska has the highest capita per capita of veterans by far from any of the other states. We have a lot of Coast Guard influence, and I know our Senators are working on bringing more service members to our community with the icebreaker,” Mitchell said. “We do have a friendly community, and I want to shout out everyone who makes veterans feel welcome here in their community.”
At the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans’ annual ceremony and luncheon took place.
Commander Wm Ozzie Sheakley welcomed veterans and their families to the event. Pastor Jerry Bennett gave an opening and closing prayer.
Native Lands & Resources Senior Director Desiree Duncan gave a Tlingit & Haida welcome and report.
She provided information on the Alaska Native Vietnam-era Veterans Land Allotment program and encouraged veterans to apply.
They are still seeking contact information for Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans or their heirs who may be able to select up to 160 acres of free federal land in Alaska.
The Woosh.ji.een dance group performed before lunch was served. Their closing dance was an honor song for all who have served. The dancers, young and old, reached out their hands to the veterans as they swayed past.
Retired U.S. Army Major General Richard Mustion returned for the second year in a row to be the keynote speaker. During his 35-year military career, he commanded at every level of the Army and the Department of Defense, serving in critical leadership positions of increasing responsibility around the world.
During his speech, U.S. Army Major General Mustion called attention to how Alaska Native people often go underrecognized for their service. Alaskan Natives have served in every major conflict since the Revolutionary War.
“They served our nation at a much, much higher rate than our nation at large. The Alaska Native population makes up about 1.5% of our nation’s population, yet over 2% of Alaskan Natives serve in our military,” he said. “And Alaska at large has the highest veteran percentage of the population of any state in America. Currently, over 10% of Alaskans serve in our nation’s armed forces. That’s remarkable.”
Commander Sheakley had invited Mustion back this year. He said they may try to get him to visit for Memorial Day, joking that the weather should be nicer for him then. Mustion traveled from Florida to spend Veterans Day in Southeast.
Both Commander Sheakley and U.S. Army Major General Mustion visited Hoonah on Friday.
“Finding a community that has the level of pride and support and patriotism that this community does in this local area is amazing,” Mustion said. “A lot of that is because of Ozzy and what he does to reinforce what veterans have done for the community.”
Commander Sheakley said it was a good time talking to the children and community of Hoonah. He was glad to travel to Hoonah on Friday and then celebrate in Juneau on Saturday.
U.S. Army Major General Mustion added he is happy to learn more about the Alaska Native culture each time he visits thanks to Sheakley and others.
U.S. Army Major General Mustion emphasized the importance of connecting older Veterans to the younger generation.
U.S. Army Major General Mustion plans to let people know at the army headquarters about the events he’s had the opportunity to participate in this November and the commitment of the Southeast community. He wants to see that commitment highlighted and expanded across the country.
“That’s just a unique reflection of the warrior spirit and the culture and the patriotism of Alaskan Natives,” he said. “But it doesn’t just end when they take the uniform off,” he said. “This community comes together and continues to value and recognize the contributions of veterans. And many other communities don’t do that.”
New this year at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall was an educational display informing attendees of the Tlingit Code Talkers.
Most people know about the Navajo code talkers who developed secret battle communications for the U.S. military. But it was only recently that people knew about the Tlingit soldiers who also used their language to pass along secret information during WWII.
The U.S. military for a time kept the unbroken codes secret in case they were needed in future wars. The number of Tlingit people who served in this capacity remains unknown to this day.
“During 48 hours on Iwo Jima, they say 800 Native language battle communications were received and translated. It took seconds, at a time when decoding by machines could take half an hour,” said former House Speaker, John Boehner. “The men undoubtedly saved lives.”
Boehner’s quote was displayed at the EPH Hall on Saturday.
Commander Sheakley explained the process of giving the Tlingit Code Talkers the recognition they deserve.
“I got a call from the U.S. Mint. They said we need to get ahold of the families that will receive Code Talker medals. I said okay, and they asked me to design the medal,” he said. “They told me there were 32 other tribes, which was all of the tribes except the Navajos. They had already received their code talker medals.”
The military declassified the Navajo Code Talker program in 1968. It was decades before this recognition came to the Tlingit servicemen, after the passage of the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008.
In 2013, Commander Sheakley attended a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
At the Congressional ceremony, Congress awarded silver medals posthumously to Tlingit code talkers Robert “Jeff” David, Sr., Richard Bean, Sr., George Lewis, Jr., and brothers Harvey Jacobs and Mark Jacobs, Jr.
Southeast Alaska Native Veterans Commander Ozzie Sheakley, who attended the Congressional ceremony in Washington, D.C. along with representatives from 32 other tribes whose members were also code talkers, received the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the Tlingit tribe.
Commander Sheakley said after the Congressional ceremony, they held smaller ceremonies around Southeast for the families, all of whom had no idea of the instrumental role their loved ones played.
“It was a nice thing to do,” Commander Sheakley said.