Wilber gave much in service to country

Ryan Winn

November is a time for gratitude. It’s the month that honors Native American heritage and America’s military veterans, as well as sets aside a day for national thanksgiving. While some approach each celebration separately, all three can be combined when discussing the service of Menominee veterans.

Menominee have served in every American conflict since the Civil War. Approximately 125 tribal members heeded the Union’s call for soldiers, and those who returned home safely enjoyed special songs sung in honor of their safe return.

While still wards of the federal government subjected to Indian boarding schools when World War I began, more than 30 Menominee joined the military. Most came from the reservation, but others joined from as far away as Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. As a reward for their heroic service, the veterans were granted American citizenship before it was allotted to all Indigenous people through the Native American Citizenship Act of 1924.

World War II witnessed 260 men and women from the Menominee Reservation take up arms in Uncle Sam’s Army. Born into the famed “Greatest Generation,” tribal members saw combat throughout the war, including on the Pacific, inland France, and the beaches of Normandy.

When I questioned Vietnam-era veteran Dennis Kenote about his time in the military, the Menominee elder stated I should speak to Warren Wilber Sr., adding: “He’s a real Menominee hero.”

When I asked Wilber why he served in the Marines from 1966-69, he affably stated, “Guys before me went in. My time came and I went and joined. I knew where I wanted to go — Vietnam.”

He added mischievously, “My mom didn’t like it. She blew a gasket when she found out.”

Wilber recounted that he went “from boot camp to Vietnam,” taking up a position as a member of a 60mm Mortar Crew in Vietnam. In March 1967, Wilber recalled “getting hit with small shrapnel,” being treated, and “staying in the field.” A month later, he was severely wounded in combat and was temporarily paralyzed below the waist.

Wilber explained, “I was hit pretty bad that time, and they couldn’t get a chopper out. I laid for two hours in that field before I was evacuated.” He continued, “I spent six months in Vietnam and eight months in the hospital.”

Wilber earned numerous accommodations for his service to America, including a Purple Heart with a gold star, but his war wounds were more than physical. Through he qualified for full disability, Wilber persisted through therapy and recovered his mobility.

Still, the road to healing was difficult. “I had so much anger,” he admitted. “At that time, there was nobody here to help. My brother Elmer served, too. He told me to get counseling at the VA in Milwaukee. There I found out what triggers my PTSD.”

Crediting both the Veterans Affairs and his tribe’s sweat lodges for his journey towards recovery, Wilber conveyed that he and Elmer found further purpose in helping other veterans heal. “We’d gang up on them. Tell them that counseling helps — you got to get it out.”

One exchange that stuck with Wilber came during a trip back from the Milwaukee VA. “It’s three hours down and three hours back and along the way people talk. They let it out. One guy said, ‘I should have seen you 10 years ago.’”

The 21st century saw a new milestone for Menominee service. In 2008, the “St. Louis Dispatch” reported that “Menominee County provided more soldiers to the Army over the last four years than any other county in the nation without a major Army installation.”

When he speaks to veterans of America’s recent wars, Wilber encourages them to seek services from the VA. Wilber shared, “When I have group meetings on PTSD, I tell them they have no one to blame for stepping forward. They didn’t have the draft. They went in.” Continuing, “I really admire those guys and girls for stepping up.”

November is a time for honoring the service of American veterans. Indigenous service men and women are especially important to remember in the context of Native American Heritage month, as their service contributed to the freedoms every American enjoys.

In this month of gratitude, let’s keep them in our thoughts and prayers. Healing is a lifelong journey that we who haven’t served cannot imagine. Still, let me be amongst the first to say to Menominee Veterans on this Veterans Day, “newāēwāēnetōkasem” (I am thankful).

Ryan Winn teaches courses in communication, English, and theater at College of Menominee Nation. For more information about the school, visit www.menominee.edu.