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Opinion: Paying tribute to Roy Hawthorne Sr., Navajo Code Talkers

(Facebook/Our Navajo Code Talkers)

Ahéhee’, shi-cheii.

Even though I just attempted to properly say “thank you” to Roy Hawthorne Sr. in his native language, those words can’t come close to expressing the gratitude I feel for what he did and for who – and what – he represents.

Hawthorne passed away Saturday at the age of 92.

I feel this immense gratitude not just because he served our country honorably but because he was also a special hero to me.

When Hawthorne was just 17 years old, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and became part of a group of men who helped to create – and then implement – the only secret radio code that the Japanese were unable to break during World War II.

Hawthorne was a Navajo Code Talker: U.S. Marines who spoke a code based on the Navajo language. That code played an integral part in helping the United States win the War in the Pacific.

The first real-life heroes of my childhood (besides people in my family) were the Navajo Code Talkers. That’s because I spent a good chunk of my childhood growing up on the Navajo Nation.

The Code Talkers faced grave danger in the Pacific Theater – as did all our fighting men in World War II – but to truly understand the special sacrifice made by the Navajo Code Talkers, one has to understand the makeup of the largest American Indian reservation in the United States.

Besides being take-your-breath-away gorgeous, the Navajo Nation is vast, rural, and desolate. Parts of it are so isolated that there are many people living there who don’t speak much English. It was even more like this in the 1940s.

Many of these men who found themselves on the other side of Mother Earth fighting the Japanese weren’t plucked from a small town to do so – because they didn’t live in a small town. In fact, many didn’t even live near a small town. And when one remembers that Marines weren’t drafted (they volunteer), you really start to get an idea of the willingness of men like Roy Hawthorne Sr. to step up.

The saying “once a Marine, always a Marine” definitely counted for something with these men. For more than 20 years after World War II ended, the Navajo Code Talkers didn’t talk about what they did. The program wasn’t declassified by the Pentagon until 1968 – and the Code Talkers kept quiet about it until then.

And it was another 14 years before President Ronald Reagan finally declared August 14, 1982 as “Navajo Code Talkers Day.”

It’s what I’d expect. Quiet humility is an integral part of Navajo culture.

If you look at the Great Seal of the Navajo Nation, you’ll see 50 arrowheads pointing outward from a map of Navajoland. It’s an acknowledgment that the 50 states of the U.S. surround and are supposed to protect the Navajo.

During World War II, the Navajo Code Talkers stepped out from behind those arrowheads to defend this nation.

What’s truly amazing is that same nation that they so willingly defended tried to destroy their tribe during the Long Walk of 1864: the deadly deportation of the Diné that many of the Navajo Code Talkers’ grandparents endured.

When I take this all in to account, I am brimming with gratitude for Roy Hawthorne Sr. And all I can do is say, “thank you.”

Or, more properly, “Ahéhee’.” 

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