Service and Sacrifice: How Haudenosaunee Veterans View Memorial Day

This story is part of a limited series centering on the voices of Haudenosaunee veterans who reflect on this solemn day in honor of fallen soldiers throughout Indian Country.

Mike Tarbell, an Akwesasne Mohawk, patiently waited one evening for his peers to turn up for their night class at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, but none of them ever filed into that building in 1966.

“All of the boys had been drafted to Vietnam. I was the only one left, so I went down to Chime’s Building and I enlisted the following day. It wasn’t until we’re sitting at the supper table on Thursday that I mentioned I was leaving on Monday morning,” said Tarbell. “I remember the looks on the faces of my dad and mother, who were kind of disappointed at first but realized it was already done.”

For his father, Albert A. Tarbell, hearing his son suddenly desiring to enlist was an unexpected decision — one he never wanted his son to make, as a highly-decorated World War II Army veteran himself.

Mike Tarbell with a painting of his father, Albert Tarbell, painted by Oren Lyons in 1956. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current

Born and raised at Akwesasne, a Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe community along the shores of the Saint Lawrence River, Albert Tarbell always searched for a better life that would one day help him provide for a family of his own. He eventually left the reservation to prove “there was a world beyond that boundary line,” according to his son.

That ambition led him to finding his roots as a proud Haudensoaunee warrior who shattered barriers in the U.S. armed forces, becoming the first Mohawk to graduate from the Army’s parachute school and the first Mohawk paratrooper to join the famed 82nd Airborne Division. 

Albert Tarbell’s Eisenhower Jacket, given to him in 1945. He is pictured at lower left. The display is in the War Memorial in Syracuse. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current

As a part of 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, better known as the “Devils in Baggy Pants,” he never had any shortage of combat experiences in the European theater of war. From participating in the Anzio Beachhead invasion of Italy to the Battle of the Bulge, the Mohawk soldier had seen it all while overseas in the service of his country.

But a combat jump into the city of Grave under the Allies’ Operation Market Garden to liberate German-occupied Netherlands earned his family’s name fame abroad when Theo Smolders, a 15-year-old Dutch boy, met Tarbell shortly after 48 American paratroopers from his division died while crossing the Waal River in Nijmegen.

Despite suffering those heavy losses, the pair still forged a lifelong friendship amid the backdrop of a global war, so much so that Tarbell would frequently stay in touch with and even visit Smolders in the decades after the war subsided.

The Freedom Museum curated an exhibit titled, ‘Albert & Theo: a special friendship,” which was recently on display until April. A bonafide war hero in his own right, a city street in Nimegen now bears Albert Tarbell’s full name following his acts of heroism in Holland.

Albert Tarbell, at center, taken in 1984. At right is Theo Smolders, who met Albert during World War II as a child in the Netherlands. At left is Major General J. Farr.

Back at home, Mike Tarbell’s father was posthumously bestowed the Congressional Silver Medal for his service among the Akwesasne Mohawk Code Talkers, an elite group of 24 Mohawk-fluent language speakers who used their linguistic skills to help win the war in Europe. His son accepted the award on his father’s behalf, seven years after he passed away at age 86 in 2009.

Albert Tarbell’s U.S. Congressional medal for being one of the Mohawk Code Talkers, given in 2012. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current

His father’s sheer commitment to the U.S. military, both during and after service, stood as a towering testament to the cherished Mohawk warrior society and its cultural traditions, which have coursed through the veins of the Tarbells’ ancestors for generations.

However, having his son sign up to get shipped off Vietnam wasn’t part of Albert Tarbell’s plan upon moving to the hamlet of Nedrow shortly after leaving the service and starting to raise a family in Central New York. 

His passion for the military extended past his service during the Second World War when Tarbell most notably carved a local legacy by spending four years helping to create Onondaga County’s World War II Minority Veterans Wall of Honor. 

The Wall of Honor, the Onondaga County World War ll Minority Veterans Monument at the Oncenter in Syracuse. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

“My dad didn’t push me to serve in the military,” said Tarbell, “so naturally he wanted me to go on to college and was always trying to make it possible for me to do better than what he had achieved.” 

Yet, Tarbell still followed in his father’s footsteps, having the opportunity to serve in the same regiment his father once did, upon finishing parachuting school at Fort Benning in Georgia.

“That was a request at graduation, and he pinned my jump wings on me. I was assigned to a 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the unit my dad served in,” Tarbell recalled.

Soon enough, Tarbell was sent off to combat in Vietnam, where he completed three combat tours between 1967 and 1972. Spending all of that time in the country changed him, too. 

Mike Tarbell, in a picture taken in the mid-1970s. He did 3 tours in Vietnam. He was in the U.S. Army 101st Airborne.

“When I came home from my second tour, I was pretty sure that I was having problems, and I tried getting back to Vietnam because I was not a garrison soldier. I was more fit for jungle warfare,” said Tarbell. “They kept trying to keep me here in the states, so for six months, they made me a poster boy for the 504th to recruit from those in service to go airborne.”

As a service recruiter, Tarbell had been sent to Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McCord in the Pacific Northwest, where he encountered more Native Americans who were eager to serve in Vietnam. However, he frequently struggled with sending them into that violent conflict.

“I didn’t want to feel responsible for some of them not coming home. I felt bad about that. Vietnam was really chewing on me already,” said Tarbell. “I knew all these guys. I could see their faces, and I just wanted to make sure that they would get home, that’s all.”

Tarbell had been stationed with the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg in North Carolina after his brief recruiting stint, before inevitably returning to Vietnam for a final tour alongside the 101st Airborne Division, the same unit with which he completed his initial trip.

Following his discharge from the service, Tarbell became an ironworker, like his father, who was a 35-year member of the Syracuse-based Ironworkers Local 60. Eventually, he changed his career path and ultimately pursued his father’s dream for him: higher education. 

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs even paid for his coursework, allowing him to attend college after confronting his post-traumatic stress disorder through an intensive combat stress clinic in Buffalo. 

Now a SUNY Cobleskill professor for three decades who has taught courses on Native American studies, including “An Introduction on Iroquois,” the 75-year-old Mohawk has often reflected on Memorial Day and the ultimate sacrifices that his family has endured after losing three Mohawk cousins in Vietnam: Charlie Martin and Clifford and William Tarbell. 

Mike Tarbell at the Iroquois Museum in Cobleskill, N.Y. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current

“William and I were halfbacks on Onondaga Central’s football team. Then he disappeared one day,” Tarbell remembered. “I didn’t see him for a year and a half or so. He came back wearing the khaki uniform and said, ‘We’re getting ready to descend into a country called Vietnam.’”

It was the last time Tarbell had seen his cousin before he was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the first major Army unit deployed to Vietnam in 1965. He died during that same year.

All three of his cousins were among at least 226 American Indian and Alaska Native service members who were killed in action, a reality that has personally troubled Tarbell from time to time as a Vietnam veteran. 

Whenever these thoughts creep in, Tarbell has revisited harrowing stories of service and sacrifice among his Mohawk ancestors for renewed strength and inspiration. One relative’s name in particular stands out among the rest. 

Col. Joseph Louis Cook, or Akiatonharónkwen, is known by many as the Continental Army’s highest-ranking commissioned officer of Black and Indigenous descent, but he’s also a seventh-generation great-grandfather to Tarbell. He fought in the French and Indian War, American Revolution and War of 1812 before retiring at age 74.

“The bottom line is that we’re still honoring and respecting the words of our great grandfathers and the word they gave to this fledging country,” said Tarbell. “We feel that in order to respect the words of our great grandfathers from long ago, that serving in the protection of this country’s ideals, is something we continue to do today.”

Mike Tarbell with a portrait of himself taken in the mid-1970s. He was in the U.S. Army 101st Airborne. He did three tours in the Vietnam War. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

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