Montana National Guard’s 495th Combat Service Support Battalion has less than a dozen Native American members.
That’s only 14 percent of the unit, is set to deploy soon to Afghanistan. Still, as Missoulian reporter Martin Kidston explains, that’s a higher-than-usual percentage of Native members.
FORT HOOD, Texas – After stepping off the firing range on the north side of this massive military base, Sgt. Serena Spotted Elk-O’Brien inverted her weapon and considered her heritage.
As a member of the Montana National Guard’s 495th Combat Service Support Battalion who’s deploying to Afghanistan, staying true to her Native American roots will play an important role in the year ahead.
“My friend gave me some sweetgrass to take with me,” she said Friday morning. “Whenever I’m out and about, she wanted me to have the sweetgrass because it helps us send our prayers.”
Spotted Elk-O’Brien is one of roughly 10 Native Americans from Montana heading to Afghanistan with the 495th this month. While not great in number, they represent around 14 percent of the deploying unit, more than most Native American soldiers are accustomed to.
“This is one of the first units where there have been more Native Americans than I’ve been around in a unit,” she said. “It’s a big deal for me to come back and represent my reservations as a good warrior for them. We go out as warriors. That’s how our people are.”
Bryce Flammond, of Cut Bank, also is impressed with the number of Native Americans in his unit. He joined the Montana National Guard in 2008 and now serves as a chaplain’s assistant, bringing his own experience with the Assembly of God church and his ties to the Blackfeet Tribe.
“I’ve noticed there’s quite a few Native Americas who have served,” he said. “With the Blackfeet Nation, it’s high respect to be a soldier or a serviceman. They have high regard for people who have served.”
Soldiers assigned to the unit represent the four corners of Montana. Several of the state’s tribes are also represented in the deployment, from Crow Country in eastern Montana up to the Flathead Reservation in the Mission Valley.
“We give each other guff, being from different tribes,” said Flammond. “As a whole, we’re pretty close and we recognize each other as partners.”
Other Native Americans in the unit include Capt. Chauncey Parker, who graduated from Carroll College and comes from the Rocky Boy’s Reservation. Spc. Natasha Reeves has ties to the Blackfeet and lives in Lewistown.
“Me and Sgt. Spotted Elk (O’Brien) hang out,” said Reeves. “It’s nice having someone to talk to. She’s pretty new to the unit, but ever since she’s come, we’ve gotten along pretty well.”
Spotted Elk-O’Brien belongs to the Northern Cheyenne, but was adopted and raised by the Salish-Kootenai. She recalls another Native American woman who tried to bring a ceremonial eagle feather through customs and received flak from the agents.
To avoid any misunderstandings, she’ll wait for her husband to mail her own ceremonial items once she arrives in Afghanistan.
“The smudging I’ll do, there’s smoke, so you can’t do it all the time,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to touch it and know it’s going to be there. I’m having it mailed to me.”