The Army paratroopers were stiff-backed as they marched in front of the crowd at Apsaalooke Veterans Park on Friday.
The 12 men wore berets with an arrowhead-shaped patch on the front and fatigues with a Crow tribal emblem patch on their right arms.
One by one, each of them solemnly walked past the memorial wall at the park, made a crisp turn to his left, squatted and smudged himself with burning cedar. After wafting the fragrant smoke over himself, the man would stand, salute and make a turn to his right before marching forward to line up with his comrades.
The men from the Army's 10th Special Forces Group, based in Fort Carson, Colo., are home between tours of duty. They were in Crow Agency to help honor veterans at a ceremony during Crow Native Days. They are scheduled to jump on Sunday during the Battle of the Little Bighorn re-enactment at the Real Bird ranch.
Lt. Col. Richard Steiner presented all of the tribal leaders at the ceremony with American flags that were flown over joint command headquarters in Iraq. He gave Crow Chairman Carl Venne and Barney Old Coyote, a World War II Army veteran and the senior veteran at the events, two patches that the men carried as they parachuted into Crow Agency.
Before the smudging, Venne presented the paratroopers with a Crow tribal flag, which was to be included in the ceremony and be taken to Iraq on their next tour.
"You take it there in safety and while you're there go through the turmoil without being touched and return home with the flag unsmudged, untattered, clean," Venne said. "Return and we will greet you in good health and safety."
Steiner said the soldiers represent the only organization in the U.S. military that traces part of its lineage to the Army Indian scouts. They continue to be trained in scout skills — stealth, surprise attack and close combat.
"We see our enemy face-to-face," Steiner said.
Like the scouts of old, and to the veteran warriors gathered, Steiner said "we in Special Forces have accepted your fighting heart."
Old Coyote, a pipe carrier who prayed during the ceremony, said the paratroopers' entrance made emotional memories for him. He talked of warriors, dying in battle, who said, "I'll go home by air," meaning by their spirit.
"The old warriors told us when we can't go home, we'll go home by spirit," he said.
Old Coyote spoke for the four World War II veterans in attendance. While he talked, the wind whipped the flags of America, Montana, the Crow Nation and its six districts.
"People say, 'What did you do?' " Old Coyote said. "We didn't do anything but try to take care of our nation so that today we could stand under these flags."
Old Coyote directed his peers into formation to salute the memorial wall where the names of Crow veterans who have died are engraved.
"Attention," he barked and the men snapped their heels together. "By the numbers. Hand salute."
After the men marched before the families of those killed in Iraq to salute them, Old Coyote told them, "We honor their memories and we trust that our country will be ever stronger because of what they did."
The veterans also danced an honor dance. Joe Medicine Crow, the oldest Crow veteran at age 91, carried his war staff and danced with a spring in his step.
Venne said all veterans, regardless of ethnicity or creed, must be honored.
"No matter who you are or what color you are, the Apsaalooke honor all veterans," Venne said. "The terrorist bullets don't say you're white, black, red or yellow."
Dressed in traditional clothing, Venne said honoring veterans on the eve of the 130th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn is appropriate.
"This country has come a long way from those days until today," he said. "We need to continue … peace through unity of people, not only here but throughout the nation."
Before the events, Venne said he was grateful to everyone at the ceremony.
"We respect every warrior that fights for these United States," he said. "We all live here and we all fight for this mighty country."
A Vietnam veteran who came home alone after his discharge, Venne was moved as so many Crows gathered for the ceremony.
"I take my hat off to my people, how they are participating and sharing their gratitude for all veterans," Venne said.