BRIGHTON — Honoring military service was the focal point of the 29th annual Veterans Day celebration Nov. 3 as the sacrifices made by Native Americans in the U.S. Armed Forces were recognized during a ceremony at the Florida Seminole Veterans Building in Brighton.
“This is an important day and we honor those folks who made America what it is today,” said Brighton Councilman Andrew J. Bowers Jr., U.S. Marine Corps. “We thank those young men and women who are probably sitting on some hill or on top of a building or in a vehicle halfway around the world right now so they can look for those bad folks and take them out before they have a chance to come here.”
The event posthumously honored Sammie Gopher, U.S. Army 1966-68, and Gary Billie, U.S. Army 1972-73. Plaques were presented to their families.
“Vietnam veterans didn’t get a welcome home; we didn’t get a parade,” said Stephen Bowers, U.S. Army. “So we give out shirts and pins commemorating when we left Vietnam in 1975.”
Guest speaker Jay Pfeiffer, U.S. Marine Corps 1965-69, met Bowers, Howard Tommie, Fred Smith and James Billie in 1972 when he was on the staff of the manpower planning council in Tallahassee and worked on Native American workforce issues. He went on to a 40-year career in the Florida Department of Education and now serves on the Florida Governor’s Council for Indian Affairs. He is also a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America and serves on the Board of the American Indian Veterans Memorial, Inc.
“It [military service] was a challenging period of our lives,” Pfeiffer said. “We were young and going away from home for the first time. For many of us, the responsibilities we had were way beyond anything we had before. That can be traumatic when combat is involved.”
He went on to praise the existence of the Brighton veterans building as a place for veterans to gather and talk about their experiences together. He noted most veterans don’t have that opportunity.
“Most people don’t understand that not every veteran did the same thing,” Pfeiffer said. “There are as many jobs to do in military service as there are in civilian life. We all have a common general experience, but the specifics are as diverse as anywhere.”
Prior to Pfeiffer’s speech, Native Voices, from All Family Ministries in Brighton, performed a few hymns in Creek and the audience was welcomed by Miss Florida Seminole Kirsten Doney and Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Thomlynn Billie.
Marc McCabe, regional director of the Vietnam Veterans of America, read the roll of fallen Tribal soldiers and then introduced Tribal veterans, who stood at the front of the room and greeted every person in attendance.
“We need to educate non-Indians about our involvement in conflict from day one when Columbus got here,” said President Mitchell Cypress, U.S. Army veteran. “We protected our land then and we still protect our land.”