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.
Philip George always kept the Hiawatha Belt neatly tucked and folded inside his left cargo pocket. “In case I died, I wanted my casket covered with that instead of the American flag,” he confessed. The Oneida soldier held onto that purple cloth with all his might, knowing all too well that he may end up being wrapped in it before returning home from Afghanistan.
The son of a Mohawk and Cayuga mother and Oneida father, and an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, George enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 29, shortly after the 2008 recession began.
“Barack Obama was president, and these attacks were happening. I tended to want to blame what was happening on the war in Afghanistan,” said George. “I just felt like it was a good decision to try to come up with a career, but I also wanted to be a leader for my family.”
A new father who struggled with a separation at that time, George also faced financial troubles as he bounced around Canada in search of steady work amid a global recession.
Left with few options or choices, he confided in one of his uncles, Albert Victor Hill, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served aboard the USS Tripoli during Operation Desert Storm, about the possibility of enlisting in the armed forces.
“Basically, I just wanted to ask him if he thought it was a good idea,” George recalled. “He told me: ‘No, don’t do it,’ but I went ahead and did it anyway. I was set on it. We were all going through some tough times, including my nieces and nephews. I wanted them to have somebody to look up to.”
He was dispatched to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington after completing basic training at Georgia’s Fort Benning and had been assigned to the 4th Battalion’s 23rd Infantry, nicknamed the “Tomahawk Regiment,” the same unit that fought alongside Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn less than two centuries ago.
His initial deployment brought him to the Forward Operating Base Ramrod, bordering the Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where he became a dismount for the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team during his first tour, which lasted five months.
Less than three weeks after touching down, George piled into the rear of a Stryker vehicle with his squadmates and ventured out on his new armored convoy unit’s first mission that ended in violence.
Jason D. Fingar, a 24-year-old Missourian Army specialist, died after sustaining injuries from an improvised explosive device (IED) during his first deployment in May 2010. It was the first active-duty casualty that George witnessed — one he hasn’t forgotten about 13 years later.
“I was in the second truck, and the truck in front of us got struck by an IED, and that driver ended up losing his life. I saw the driver’s lifeless body resting on top of the front of the vehicle,” said George. “We had to check and make sure there were no secondary explosives that could go off. That was just like two or three weeks in the country.”
After gaining five months of on-the-ground experience, George got promoted to serve as a vehicle commander during his second tour, which lasted nine months. Driving long-hour reconnaissance assignments that transported him from destination to destination in search for the Taliban started taxing his morale and spirit.
It only took a handful more missions after Fingar’s passing before the Oneida soldier started questioning his objectives in the desert. George was only in Afghanistan briefly before he felt convinced that he was part of a foreign invading and occupying force. He insisted it “really wasn’t any of our business being there,” adding that it wasn’t “our job as a nation to enforce their laws.”
“It just started to bug me after a while, especially after I went on this mission: Operation Manifest Destiny,” George recalled. “We were supposed to go into these villages, and as soon as we rolled up, we could see the Taliban getting in their trucks and running away.”
Although the Taliban would typically escape, George’s missions were always far from finished. His team would hang around and catalog the locals with what he considers to be intrusive techniques, often including fingerprinting, photographing faces and even scanning irises.
A couple of his platoon mates even asked whether the mission’s name — “Manifest Destiny” — ever offended him, but George was simply unaware of its meaning at that time or the ideology’s historical baggage, which instructed westward colonial travelers to settle, conquer and prosper, often at the expense of Indigenous peoples and their homelands.
“I kind of just looked it up,” George admitted, “and I started to think about our Indian status cards after that mission, which we still have today.”
That transformational mission left him itching further to interrogate his role in the global war on terrorism, so a few years after exiting the service, George enrolled at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs in 2015.
He graduated six years later with bachelor’s degrees in international relations and religious studies. Higher education gave him the academic tools necessary to critically reflect upon his time in Afghanistan as a Haudenosaunee veteran, especially on Memorial Day.
At least 73 American Indian and Alaska Native service members were killed in action between Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom in the post-9/11 era. More than 500 combat-related injuries were also tallied between both missions among these same groups.
“I would like to think that when Indigenous communities have to send their loved ones into battle that they would have a say in international affairs, but that’s just not the case,” said George. “The sacrifice isn’t exactly for our cause; it’s for another government’s cause, because we’re basically looked at as a nation within a nation.”
In spite of raising his objections to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which occurred two decades ago, George explained those who died in combat should still be honored, particularly his fellow Indigenous brothers and sisters in arms.
“They’re sacrificing a lot that no one else will, probably their heritage and culture. Maybe they have to cut their hair in some cases,” he added. “They put that aside so they can do their military training.”
“No one else had a flag, so I couldn’t wear one,” said George, who always wanted to stitch a patch of the Hiawatha Belt onto the sleeve of his uniform. The U.S. wouldn’t allow him to do so due to a strict dress code, but he found alternative ways to keep his Haudenosaunee heritage alive while conforming to the regimented lifestyle of an active-duty soldier during wartime.
Wearing a fitted headdress made with strips of wood and feathers, known as a gasdó•wä•’, certainly helped him show off his pride by standing out among the rest at special gatherings and ceremonies.
These fleeting observances helped him remain physically and spiritually connected to his Haudenosaunee culture and the People of the Standing Stone, who resided in the Canadian province of Ontario, more than 6,000 miles away.
Now, a decade after getting discharged from the service, the 43-year-old Oneida is a consultant, researcher and policy analyst, and is specifically focused on supporting a team to acquire affordable and energy-efficient housing for his community in the Pacific Northwest.
“I think once a person gets the feeling of service and sacrifice, they tend to want to continue because I see it here in my own community,” said George. “It’s a very respectable and honorable position to have, and a lot of people don’t understand that.”
Grateful that he returned home unharmed after finishing his duties in 2013, George has often reminded himself that hundreds of fallen Indigenous service members spanning several U.S. conflicts never had that chance, so he hasn’t stopped honoring their sacrifices either.
“Pain is temporary, and discipline is forever. I will forever have this idea rooted in my mind,” said George. “I am able to push through the tough parts in life, only to come out stronger. I learned this in the service, and it has helped me grow and be who I am today.”
read more of the ‘service and sacrifice’ series
Waterman, a Seneca, reflects on his service as a combat artist in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
Hill, an Akwesasne Mohawk, reflects on her service in the U.S. Marine Corps and lessons from those who came before her.
Tarbell, an Akwesasne Mohawk, reflects on his time in Vietnam and his father’s service in World War II.
See all the photos Central Current gathered for its ‘Service and Sacrifice’ series.