Among all our wars and military conflicts, Vietnam was perhaps hardest on veterans. Yet, that did not stop Montanans from enlisting for that “conflict” at a very high rate. Montanans have one of the highest rates of voluntary military service in the nation and within that number, Native Americans have the highest enlistment rate of any ethnic group.
As a result of that conflict, Montana Native Americans count many military heroes. One of them is Johnny Joe Woodenlegs Jr., Northern Cheyenne, who has held the record for the Basic Training Overall Proficiency test for 44 years. No one in the Nation has topped his record since 1971. How did he do that?
“I don’t know,” Johnny modestly replied. “My father (a long-time tribal president) just told me to try and do my best.”
Johnny Joe also recalled: “There were no honor parades, songs or victory dances when we returned.”
The Northern Cheyenne recently bid farewell to another Vietnam veteran, Eugene Seminole, awarded 13 medals, including the Navy Cross, second highest medal bestowed by a grateful nation. Indeed, Eugene was one of the most highly decorated Vietnam veterans in the state of Montana. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh recently acknowledged his heroism in letters sent to the family for the final service.
Morning Star tradition
Native veterans are highly venerated by their fellow tribal members. At Northern Cheyenne, the tribe is especially proud of the Morning Star Chapter, Vietnam Veterans Association Color Guard, formed in 1986. Since then, this group has gained national recognition for their sharp Class “A” Dress Uniform Code and their professional presentation of military colors. The Morning Star Chapter has been invited to lead grand entries at pow-wows throughout Indian Country. They frequently present the colors at military funerals, both in and out of state, expressing solidarity for other fallen vets from other tribes and non-Indian comrades. The Northern Cheyenne Morning Star Chapter has traveled to make military presentations of the colors in Colorado, Florida, Idaho, North Carolina, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Washington and Canada. The members are particularly proud of the opportunity they had to present the colors for President George H.W. Bush at the Billings Airport. They have also presented colors to several Montana governors.
Recently, the Morning Star Color Guard was honored at Shawnee, Okla., during the National Native American Vietnam Veterans Conference in the Honor (Color) Guard Competition where they took first place in the Rifle Competition
Fatal battle wounds
The original members of the Morning Star Chapter were: Johnny Joe Woodenlegs (first commander); Bucky Glenmore (third Commander); Raymond Harris (deceased); Jack Three Fingers (deceased); Linwood Tallbull; Cleve Littlebear; Isadore Whitewolf; Billy Two Moons; Windy Shouderblade (second commander, now deceased); Johnny Russell (deceased); Vernon Tallbull (deceased); Eugene Seminole (deceased); Marcian Killsminght; Arthur Teeth; Ben Armentrout and Robert Bearchum (deceased). Most of these veterans perished as a result of complications from their military service and several of the survivors now suffer from post-traumatic stress, Agent Orange or other injuries from the conflict.
Tribal Vice President Winfield Russell now serves as commander of the Morning Star Color Guard. He is a U.S. Marine veteran who dedicates much of his time to veterans issues.
“As the current commander, I highly respect and honor our Northern Cheyenne veterans, including the younger vets from Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf War who have joined us,” he said. “We are also very grateful for the female veterans who have joined us, such as Micah Highwalking, the first Cheyenne woman to graduate from West Point. These women follow the Northern Cheyenne tradition of ‘warrior girls’ such as the Girl Who Saved Her Brother at the Battle of the Rosebud (1876).
“We are very proud of the Morning Star Color Guard and all of our Cheyenne veterans and that also goes for our non-Indian comrades in arms. We all served.”
Thanks to Bucky Glenmore and Winfield Russell who provided information for this article.