Cherokee veterans
Ten veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars stand in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., as part of the sixth annual Cherokee Warrior Flight on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Addison Kliewer / Gaylord News)

(Editor’s note: Gaylord News is a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.)

WASHINGTON — Charles Lane, one of the 10 Cherokee war veterans participating in this year’s Cherokee Warrior Flight, said he can still hear the sound of American soldiers marching during the Korean War.

Lane, 83, toured the Washington military monuments Tuesday with nine other Cherokee Nation citizens who fought in either the Vietnam War or the Korean War.

Sitting in a wheelchair and facing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, he looked at the names of people he once knew.

“I didn’t think it would happen, but I was here one evening with a group, and I stood there and I could feel them walking past me,” said Lane, who served in the Navy, Air Force and Army. “You could hear them whispering to one another.”

Lane was led around the monuments by his son, who is also a veteran. Lane said they visited the Washington monuments for the first time in 2006.

“I wasn’t going to come,” Lane said, shaking his head at the memory. “The hairs come up on the back of your neck.”

Cherokee veterans
Charles Lane, who served in the Navy, Army and Air Force throughout his time in the armed service, looked at the Vietnam Memorial Wall on Sept. 10, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Addison Kliewer / Gaylord News)

‘What this memorial is all about’

The group is part of the sixth annual Cherokee Warrior Flight, which is spending three days visiting memorials and landmarks in Washington. About 50 veterans have visited Washington since the Warrior flights began six years ago.

This year, the group even visited the National Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, just one day before the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

David Nanney, a veteran and former employee of the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, thanked the Cherokee veterans when they arrived, holding back tears. He said seeing the group the day before the anniversary made him proud to be an American.

“They represent what this memorial is all about,” said to Nanney, referring to the bravery of the Cherokee Warrior Flight.

Charles Brave, an 86-year-old from Hulbert, Oklahoma, located about 50 miles east of Tulsa, laughed about the hot, humid Washington weather while sitting on a bench at the Pentagon memorial.

Brave, whose name serves as a permanent reminder of his time in the Army, stood beside Sammy Carey, 65, gazing at the memorial of those who were lost in 9/11 . Carey, who is also from Hulbert, said the 10 Cherokee veterans on the trip had known each other for 15 years.

Cherokee veterans
Charles Brave and Sammy Carey, both part of this year’s Cherokee Warrior Flight, stood in the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, one day before the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. (Addison Kliewer / Gaylord News)

‘It’s a brotherhood’

Although only 10 veterans joined this year’s Cherokee Warrior Flight, many other Cherokees have also served in the military. Following 9/11, a higher number of Native Americans have served in the armed forces than any other ethnic group, according to the Naval History and Heritage website.

“I served with a lot of them, you know, at different stations. But I didn’t know that we were the largest ethnic group,” said Lane.

Joe Crittenden, the first secretary of veterans affairs for the Cherokee Nation, said he believes that is because Cherokees have a love for America that other folks may not have.

“It’s a calling,” said Crittenden. “Once it gets in your blood, so to speak, it is something we just do. It’s a family-type tradition.”

Apart from overseeing the Cherokee Warrior Flight, Crittenden also signed an agreement to use the tribe’s health centers as veteran care facilities, as opposed to using Veterans Administration health facilities, according to the Cherokee Phoenix.

“We tell each other things that maybe we haven’t shared with our family even. It’s a brotherhood, whether it’s Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, it doesn’t matter,” said Crittenden.

However, prior to Lane joining the armed forces, he said he did not tell many people he was Cherokee. When he was young, Lane said Native Americans were treated worse than any other race or ethnic group.

“When I first joined the military, you didn’t tell anyone you were Indian or Native American,” said Lane. “You didn’t say anything about it.”

Now, Lane said he no longer feels the need to hide who he is, and he is proud to say he is Cherokee.

“It feels great,” said Lane. “It feels like I’m part of the nation again, you know?”

Joining the veterans on their trip to Washington was Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Kimberly Teehee, the Cherokee delegate who is aiming to obtain a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which was promised to the tribe in the Treaty of New Echota.

While Hoskin and Teehee did not tour the monuments with the veterans Tuesday, the two did come to Washington with the group.

Crittenden said the Cherokee Warrior Flight is a small way for the tribe to say thank you to the veterans for their service to this country.

“’Thank you’ can’t pay them back,” Crittenden said. “But the effort is to let them know that we certainly appreciate it from our heart. And then we just do what we do because we love our veterans. They love this country.”