As the rest of the nation commemorates Memorial Day, some 300,000 military veterans mark the event thru the impress of razor wire and prison walls.
The American Correctional Association (ACA) and the US Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) indicate that fully 83% of that number are veterans discharged under honorable conditions. The Veterans Administration (VA) reports that 20% reported combat experience, 18% were homeless prior to their arrest, and 70% were arrested for a nonviolent crime.
It is clear that many military veterans start out with non-criminal issues, such as, PTSD/SS, drug and alcohol problems, and homelessness. These situations sooner or later lead to criminalization if not effectively resolved thru mental and social health programs.
But certainly not all vets have such problems. I’ve known many on both sides of the issue aisle. One of the most outstanding I’ve ever met, in or out, was Peter MacDonald, former Chief (Chairman) of the Navajo Nation.
Prison can give an alert, open-minded, inquisitive inmate many opportunities to learn from the best. Pete was one of those occasions. The year I celled with Pete was itself worth the price of the ticket.
Peter MacDonald was 15 in 1944 when he joined the Marine Corps to become a Navajo Code Talker. At the end of World War-II, he served a year in China repatriating Japanese POWs. He used his GI Bill to get an Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma, joined Hughes Aircraft, and became a Project Manager on the Polaris missile program. He returned to his Navajo roots and tribal politics in 1963.
Peter caught his case at a time of general reservation unrest. A serious incident occurred where two sheriff’s deputies were held (“kidnapped”) by his supporters. Two of his supporters were killed. Pete wasn’t even there.
A land speculator, when confronted by the US Attorney’s Office, in return for no personal prosecution and being able to keep the $4 million he swindled, agreed to testify against Pete. MacDonald was convicted of racketeering and kidnap charges involving the “riot” of his supporters. He got 14 years.
One of President Clinton’s last acts in office, 2001, was a commutation of MacDonald’s remaining sentence (he had already served most of it). Pete returned to the reservation where he lives today.
During the year I celled with Pete, he spent most of his time corresponding with contacts all over the world, working at the completion of a Navajo dictionary, and educating me into Native American history and folklore.
One of the stories I recall (and I have an extensive collection of material from that period), was of a time when NASA used a part of the reservation (most resembling the lunar landscape) to test their new moonbuggy.
An old Navajo wandered by the site as Pete Conrad and other the astronauts were putting the buggy thru its trials. Asking what they were up to, Peter explained to the Old Man that they were astronauts and what the function of the moonbuggy was.
Giving some thought, the Old Man asked if they might take a note up to the brothers on the moon, should they run into any. Peter explained to the perplexed astronauts that part of Navajo legend held that some ancients once travelled to the sun. Stopping by the moon on the way, some of them remained. They were still up there.
With good-natured grins, the astronauts agreed, “If we meet any Navajo on the moon, sure, we’ll give them your note.”
When the Old Man left, one of the astronauts asked MacDonald if he minded translating the note. Peter read it, laughed, and explained, “It says, ‘Don’t sign any treaties with these fellas. They’re gonna try to steal your land!’”
After that moon mission, NASA encased the note in a Lucite plaque as a memento of the moon trip. It hung on the wall of Pete’s tribal office. He showed me a picture of it.
As far as I know, they didn’t run into any Navajo. But I did… Happy Memorial Day 2010.