By Phillip O'Connor and Kevin Crowe
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Keshena, Wis. Two dozen military veterans enter the powwow grounds
to the sound of a drum's rhythmic thump and the chants of songs
passed down from their ancestors.
They dance clockwise, a slow stutter step on lush grass, as sunlight
dapples through the surrounding forest. Several are squeezed into old
dress uniforms or camouflage fatigues. Many sport caps from which an
eagle feather dangles; graying ponytails spill out the backs. A few
wear traditional headdresses, breechcloths and leggings.
Above them, suspended from two soaring pines, a large American flag
ripples in the breeze.
From their seats in the amphitheater carved into surrounding
hillsides, friends, relatives, tribal officials and others rise in respect.
Vince Crow, 17, soaks in the spectacle of the Menominee Nation's
Gathering of Warriors. His grandfather served in World War II, his
uncle in Desert Storm. Crow thinks he, too, may enlist.
"It's a way to show pride," Crow says. "Pride for your family. Pride
for your heritage. Pride for your nation. It just kind of goes along
with our ancestry. Instead of protecting a village, you're protecting
Five years into a grinding, unpopular war, there are few places in
the United States where commitment to military service is as strong
as in Menominee County, population 4,562. Almost 90 percent of the
residents are members of the Menominee tribe, which translates as
"people of the wild rice."
On a per-capita basis, Menominee County provided more soldiers to the
Army over the last four years than any other county in the nation
without a major Army installation, according to an analysis by the
Post-Dispatch. The newspaper's ranking excluded the 1 percent of U.S
counties that have a population under 1,000.
The newspaper reviewed Department of Defense data for every
active-duty, Reserve and National Guard recruit, who by far represent
the majority of forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The analysis found that rural America continues to be fertile ground
for recruiters, including in Missouri and Illinois, where many young
people see the armed forces as a way to escape poverty or the lack of
opportunity in their hometowns.
It's also the case in Menominee, one of the poorest counties in the
nation. The unemployment rate is more than twice the national average.
But many here view the armed forces as not just a chance to better
themselves. More important, they say, is the chance to live their
Crow, his hair shaved close, wears a colorful beaded choker. A
medicine pouch filled with tobacco dangles from his neck. He says he
grew up listening to the tales of forefathers who found honor in battle.
"It goes with our heritage," he says. "Warriors, you know?"
LIFESTYLE AND COMMITMENT
Menominee County was second in the nation in per-capita Army
recruiting from 2004 to last year, exceeded only by Geary County in
Kansas, home to Fort Riley and the 1st Infantry Division. Four of the
top 10 counties in the United States were home to large Army posts.
Residents of such areas tend to have more familiarity and interaction
with the military and are more receptive to the idea of military
service, the Army says. Installations host activities open to the
public and are active in civic life. In addition, many military
retirees and families congregate in such areas.
Geary County, situated amid the Flint Hills in northeastern Kansas,
is home to about 25,000 residents, as well as 16,000 soldiers based
at Fort Riley. Almost 22 percent of those in the county over the age
of 18 are veterans, well above the national average of almost 14 percent.
"You've got a community that's already predisposed to supporting the
military," said Army Recruiting spokesman S. Douglas Smith.
Major Mike Johnson commands a recruiting company in Manhattan, Kan.,
near Fort Riley. He is amazed at how little most civilians know about
the Army and how it works. That makes a place such as Geary far more
attractive for the military because it's usually easier to recruit
someone who already understands the lifestyle and commitment, he said.
And yet, even if potential recruits don't know much about the
military, there can still be opportunities when trying to get them to
sign, said Sgt. 1st Class Shaun Keithline, who recruits in Geary County.
"(For) people who've never been around it, there's that curiosity,"
Still, Keithline said, many of his recruits are the children of
military personnel now reaching retirement age. For many of those
families, he said, "the questions are not if you're going to serve
but, 'Are you serving before or after you go to college?' They expect
to do it."
Like his own son, who is 13.
"He's already trying to figure out what he's going to do within the
armed forces," Keithline said.
Keithline said he believed potential recruits also might be
influenced by the presence of soldiers around town, many of whom have
returned from overseas with money to burn.
"Let's face it: Almost every soldier is going to drive a nice car,"
Keithline said. "They're going to wear nice clothes, and they're
always going to have some cash. And that's what kids see. And that's
what they're attracted to the shiny bling-bling."
'RITE OF PASSAGE'
For three years, until his retirement in November, Allen McCann, 44,
served as the Army recruiter for the region that included Menominee
County. In the hallways of Menominee High School, he was known simply
Whereas schools in some of the more affluent counties limited his
access to students, McCann was always welcome at Menominee High.
Almost daily, he visited the school, which sits just a few miles from
the powwow grounds down the twisting two-lane highway that cuts
through the center of town. He made classroom presentations and
chatted to students in the hallways and lunchroom.
Often, McCann was recruiting someone whose father, grandfather, uncle
or brother had served. The tribe's website lists 81 members in the
military, including 19 deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
"We maybe feel it more, take it more personally," said Rebecca
Alegria, a tribal researcher who has nephews who are serving. "It's
hard not to when it's family."
And in a community in which veterans are revered, McCann said, many
young people long for that same respect.
"I didn't have to use the old generalized pitch I did everywhere
else," he said. "There was no stigma to joining the Army. ... In a
lot of ways, it's like a rite of passage."
'TRADITIONAL WARRIOR SOCIETY'
For more than 200 years, Native Americans have played an important
role in the United States armed forces. They scouted for George
Washington, fought gallantly in both world wars and volunteered in
large numbers for Vietnam.
Today, there are 200,000 Native American veterans and, historically,
they have the highest record of service per capita when compared with
other ethnic groups, according to the Defense Department.
The reasons behind the disproportionate contribution are complex:
poverty, lack of education, few job opportunities. But many experts,
as well as Native Americans themselves, say military service also is
rooted in their culture.
"It's the closest thing that our young warriors can compare to our
traditional warrior society,'' said Lisa Waukau, chairman of the
8,475-member Menominee Tribe.
Waukau, 61, a former high school history teacher, said tribal
students were taught from a young age about Native American warriors.
"It's service to the nation, service to the people, and there's no
higher calling," she said. "The ones that will be remembered and the
ones that they sing songs about and write stories about are those who
have served the people."
That service comes with a heavy price. Native American veterans of
the Vietnam War suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at twice
the rate of white veterans, according to the U.S. Department of
Veterans Affairs. Contributing factors included prejudice they
encountered in the military, guilt over violating spiritual beliefs
and acts against civilians that triggered reminders of the brutality
Native Americans suffered in the past. Although no studies have yet
been done on Native American veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan,
experts expect similar problems.
Louie Kakwitch sees the toll almost daily. As the Tribal Veteran
Service Officer for Menominee County, he meets with almost every
veteran who returns from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I can tell they're bothered," said Kakwitch, 42, who served three
years in the Army. "I can't pinpoint it, but you know they've changed."
Over the past two years, a half-dozen tribal veterans of Iraq or
Afghanistan have filed for disability claims, due in part to
post-traumatic stress, Kakwitch said. About a year and a half ago, a
counselor began traveling from Milwaukee to Menominee County to meet
with veterans every other week, but few attend.
"Some just aren't ready to seek help yet," Kakwitch said.
Some returning vets have posed problems including incidents of
domestic violence for police, Kakwitch said. Many struggle to find
The tribe is the main employer. About 500 people work for the tribal
government; 130 for the Menominee Indian school district. The tribe
also operates a lumber mill that employs about 400, including those
who do seasonal work in the woods.
A tribal casino just off the highway on the edge of town employs
another 500. The casino provides about $10 million a year to the
tribe, but none to individual members. Most of the money pays for
tribal government services, everything from police to parks, health
care to street repair.
Waukau, the tribal chairman, said the casino and mill jobs paid a
decent wage with benefits, but probably not enough to support a
family without a second income.
"Gaming has really improved the quality of life so that anybody who
wants to work really can work," Waukau said. "We're getting a
stronger and stronger middle class all the time, but it's a lower
Still, even the tribal college that sits on the edge of town is
something most families can't afford, Waukau said.
"Sometimes, that's not even on their radar screen."
HUGS AND THANKS
Back at the veterans tribute, the scent of a wood fire mingles with
the sweet aroma of Indian fry bread. Kyle Newton watches as dozens of
people file past the veterans, offering handshakes, hugs and thanks.
Although Newton, 17, will graduate in a few days, he has no plans and
hasn't thought much about his future. He's just the kind of kid that
Waukau and other tribal leaders worry about.
High school dropouts, teenage pregnancy and alcohol and drug abuse
are persistent problems among tribal youths. Across the highway from
a convenience store offering a wide selection of beer and hard
liquor, a prominent hand-painted sign reads: "If you want to prevent
alcohol and drug abuse ... Take pride in yourself, take pride in your
children, take pride in your heritage."
"If you hang around here long enough, you're going to burn out,"
Newton says, the bill of his ball cap twisted to the left and a wisp
of whiskers on his chin. "If you don't leave the reservation and try
to better your life, there's not much choice."
Newton lives with his mother, a bus driver who went back to school to
become a nurse. He has little contact with his father.
He knows a couple of classmates who are going into the National
Guard, and he's thought about doing the same.
He knows the Army could offer him a chance to continue his education
and provide a bridge out of poverty. But like many young people here,
Newton says it's not the cash or chance to go college that would
drive his decision.
"I guess that's what we're here for the elders, and our family and
the reservation and the country."
Kevin Crowe reported from St. Louis.
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