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Planning underway for North Dakota's first Honor Flight for native vets

Members of the White Earth Veterans Honor Guard parade through the Comstock Ballroom at Minnesota State University Moorhead Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, during opening ceremonies for the Native Warriors event. The veterans shared experiences about their time in the service. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — The state's first Honor Flight for American Indian veterans is getting ready to take off next spring to recognize an ethnic group that serves in the military more per capita than any other.

American Indians have served in every major military conflict — from the Revolutionary War to more than 24,000 on active duty today — and the U.S. Department of Defense estimates there are 150,000 native veterans.

Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt, and Bill Peterson were among the 42,000 natives to serve in the Vietnam War. They are now serving as president and vice president, respectively, of the North Dakota Native American Veteran's Honor Flight, which intends to take 20 to 30 veterans to Washington, D.C.

"This is an opportunity for our veterans to visit what they fought for and show some dedication to our veterans so they can see this memorial. A lot of our veterans probably never left North Dakota" once they returned home, Marcellais said.

Filmmaker Deb Wallwork, of Fergus Falls, Minn., documented the stories of 11 Vietnam veterans in her 1987 film "Warriors," recently featured at the Fargo Public Library's Native American Festival and Education Series.

"They came out of these small towns on the Plains and into the jungles of Vietnam," she said. "Native people did very, very well in the military, but there's this mixed feeling about the history of native and white relationships. They were our adversaries to many of these wars, but we admired them so much for their prowess as warriors."

Wallwork said recognizing native veterans is important because they have an "incredible record of service" and were often stationed on the frontlines.

"They love this country," she said. "This is their country, too."

In 2015, Marcellais and Peterson reached out to the national Honor Flight organization headquartered in Ohio, seeking approval for the Honor Flight they're organizing. In November 2016, the country's first-ever Honor Flight for American Indians took off from Reno, Nevada.

The North Dakota Native American Veterans Honor Flight, now recognized by the North Dakota Secretary of State as an official nonprofit organization, will also include on the trip to Washington non-natives who served in the military.

United Tribes of North Dakota, an association of the state's five tribes, passed a resolution in February 2016 showing its support of the Honor Flight for native veterans.

With the majority of paperwork complete, the native vets organizing the Honor Flight said all that's left to do is fundraise and accept applications to select 20 to 30 veterans to participate.

The Honor Flight is aiming to raise $1,000 per veteran to cover costs for the trip to Washington anticipated to take place in May 2018.

Veterans interested in applying must be honorably discharged, Peterson said. To submit an application, contact Marcellais at (701) 477-8985 or rjm@utma.com.

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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