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Native American answered call to serve.

Jim when younger and older

This sentiment of answering the call to serve rang true for James “Jim” Wayne Smith, an Apache Native American Marine who served during the Vietnam War.

Drafted when he was 18 years old, Jim said he was overwhelmed with emotion and disbelief when he received his draft card in the mail. He never considered he would be drafted. While he had friends who tried to give him advice on how he could request deferment and stay in the home as the only son, Jim said “I am no better than anyone, I will go.”  

During the Vietnam War, move than 42,000 Native Americans served in the US Armed Forces. More than 90% of those were volunteers. A study conducted between 1985 and 1988 concluded that while heavy recruitment, especially in reservation territory, played a role, most Native Americans were more than willing to serve their country, and this has been evident throughout history. Tradition, both familial and tribal, and dedication to protecting their land have inspired Native Americans to serve in every major conflict for more than 200 years. Native Americans serve in the Armed Forces at five times the national average, having the highest per-capita involvement of any other ethnic group in the US.


As a part of that legacy, Jim entered the Armed Forces. He was told that some of his group would join the Marines, and some would join the Army. Considering himself too small at 5’ 8”, Jim was sure he would be called for the Army but was shocked when he was recruited into the Marines, training at Camp Lejeune and Camp Pendleton. He served with the 3rd Marine Division, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines. Known as “Ground Pounders”, they were an infantry division and they landed in Vietnam in early 1966. Jim was involved in many dangerous operations, but one that stood out in memory was Operation Hickory, the first authorized incursion into the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone. The Marines lost 142 men and another 896 were wounded during this operation.


During the Vietnam War, 232 known Native American soldiers lost their lives. As stated in Tom Holm’s study “Forgotten Warriors: American Indians Service Men in Vietnam”, the sacrifices of the Native American community were largely ignored or considered insignificant for a long time after the Vietnam War. However, the importance and significance of Native American contributions to Vietnam, and all other major conflicts, started to be recognized and memorialized appropriately through various federal agencies and departments. In 1995, the National Native American Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Forgotten Warrior” was dedicated at the Highground Veterans Memorial Park in Neillsville, Wisconsin. This memorial includes all the names, ranks, homes of record, dates of casualty, and tribal affiliations of the 232 Native American soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. In 2013, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of a National Native American Veterans Memorial to give "all Americans the opportunity to learn of the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans in the Armed Forces of the United States." The National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was dedicated November 11, 2022. This is the first national tribute honoring the enduring and distinguished service of Native Americans in every branch of the US military.

While in Vietnam, Jim suffered numerous hospitalizations due to illness and injury, including a shrapnel wound from stepping on a trap. However, Jim said the most difficult thing he faced related to his service was coming home. Assimilating back to American life after combat was difficult enough, but the treatment he and other soldiers and veterans faced made the adjustment that much more painful. Jim recalled seeing the faces of his fellow Marines who were killed brutally in Vietnam and then coming home to bottles being thrown at him, being spit on, and the sacrifices of his brothers being ignored. “It hurt way deep into my soul,” he said.


While he considered himself lucky to return home when so many didn’t, the guilt he carried for surviving troubled him for many years. Jim stated that he since learned to forgive those who spat and threw bottles at him when he came home. “You don’t get over it when you are treated that way, but you slowly learn to forgive.”


Other Vietnam Veterans can attest to the abysmal treatment they received. Native American veterans were no exception. Coupled with the lack of recognition and assistance from the federal government at the time, many Native American veterans suffered from PTSD and other mental ailments and had very little support to deal with the impact of war on their everyday lives. However, a large portion of these veterans sought healing and solace with their tribal traditions and ceremonies. Many tribes in the United States have integrated veteran-centric practices, ceremonies and aids into their cultures to honor and uplift those who have served. For many veterans, this connection to their family and culture saved their lives. Over time, support and aid from federal agencies and other sources has become more widely available for Native American veterans as well.


Jim returned home from Vietnam with several medals, including a Purple Heart and 2 Bronze Stars, and he reached the rank of Lance Corporal. He currently lives in Stillwell, Oklahoma with his wife, Eliza Smith who is a RN at VHSO. They have been together since 1998 and married since 2000. He also has two children from a previous marriage. He connects with his culture through the practices of stomp dances, Native food, and loving his family. He will always carry the memories of his service with him and how it has changed him but it brings a smile to his face when people tell him, “Thank you for your service” or “Welcome home”. 


Office of Tribal Government Relations: Tribal Government Relations - U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (

Native American Direct Loan Program: Native American Direct Loan | Veterans Affairs (

Native American Veterans Association: Native American Veterans Association (

Native American Veterans Assistance: Home (

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