Simeon Oxendine flew over 30 missions against the Nazis during World War II. A few years after he returned home to Robeson County, North Carolina, he and his people, the Lumbees, would be targeted for intimidation and a cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan. Oxendine went to battle again. At the battle of Hayes Pond over 500 Native Americans drove a band of Klansmen into the woods, and captured the KKK banner.

On a per-capita basis, more Native Americans have served in the War on Terror than any other ethnic group in the United States. They committed to this sacrifice despite the fact that the United States government dispossessed their ancestors of their lands and deployed the very Army in which they would fight, to drive them into marginalization and near destruction. There is perhaps no more remarkable testament to Native survivance than the military service of Navajo Code Talkers and Indigenous soldiers like our state’s Simeon Oxendine.

African Americans, too, have fought for a country that has seldom acknowledged their dignity. Five percent of George Washington’s Continental Army were Black men. In World War I, the all-Black Harlem Hellfighters signed up to fight for the Triple Entente against German aggression and authoritarianism. The Hellfighters served under the French flag, but they were Americans fighting in a war America had chosen to join. Lawrence Joel, and African American medic from Winston-Salem, NC who served in Vietnam, would become the first Black Medal of Honor recipient since the Spanish-American War.

That so many Native Americans and African Americans have worn the American uniform offers a deep testament to their strength, and to the fundamental strength of their country. By any measure, these groups have a right to reject a government that has treated them poorly for half a millennium. But the call of duty resounds in many Americans whose relationship to their country has not always been sunny. The United States military’s historical record is not spotless–see the massacres inflicted in three centuries of Indian wars–but it has drawn upon some of the most profound goodness that our country contains somewhere in the national soul.

Every veteran deserves honor and respect from their countrymen, but there is something especially remarkable about veterans who chose to serve despite their nation’s ambivalent attitude toward the people from which they came. The Harlem Hellfighters. The Navajo Code Talkers. The nearly all-Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned 4,000 Bronze Star Medals while its members’ loved ones languished in American concentration camps. These veterans show an America that is pluralistic, that is patriotic, and whose fighting spirit is indefatigable. To them we say, thank you.

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