“I was a good kid … I came back a different man,” said Wayne C’Hair, a Northern Arapaho elder. “Today, although I’m 70 years old, I’m still wounded.”
He joins the ranks of thousands of military service men and women, from Vietnam and other wars, who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I could have been a great man later on – my tour there, my service to my country, it damaged me. I was never the same,” he said.
C’Hair served as artillery support during his tour of duty in Vietnam, from January 1967 to January 1968. He grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation and is a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe. C’Hair said that every boy in his high school class went to Vietnam, either through enlistment or by being drafted. When he was drafted, C’Hair’s family asked why he planned to go.
“That war is not our war, why go fight them?” he remembers family members asking him at the time.
It wasn’t such a simple question, for him. “You had to go or go to jail ... We went anyway – we were citizens of this great country of ours and were trying to do our duty.”
Skill and Survival
Upon arriving in Vietnam, C’Hair helped build a base camp, constructing barracks, bathroom, showers and other necessities.
“I had carpenter skills. My dad was a carpenter,” he said.
“We got mortar rounds every night,” he continued. “Everybody was scared. Everybody was scared to go over there ... you’d come under fire, and of course you have to fire back. I remember (those days) all the time.”
According to two different studies, about 82,000 Native Americans, including Alaskan natives, served in the military during the Vietnam era, and about 42,000 served in-country. C’Hair said he met only one other Native American during his tour, a Navajo.
“We’d get together,” he said. “We prayed together. That gave us power and strength for the next day. We’d talk about the stars, what they meant to us; we are people of nature.”
His culture and abilities were respected by his fellow servicemen.
“We’re caretakers of Mother Earth – that’s our purpose (as Native Americans),” he explained.
“We’d stop ... the other people. They’d walk into ambushes,” he remembered. “I’d know there was something wrong. Sure enough, there’d be an ambush ahead of us … In fact, they felt confident with me all the time; they called me ‘Chief’ in Vietnam.”
The patrols and constant threat of ambushes, air strikes, sniper fire and mortar rounds stayed with him upon his return.
“I came back wounded from my experience – I went over there a good man,” he said. “I realized there was something wrong with me later on.”
His family saw the changes in him. In fact, he said, until his grandmother’s dying day, she thought he was still in Vietnam – that her grandson had never returned.
“I felt really bad about that,” C’Hair said. “She looked at me and said, ‘You are not my grandson, Wayne; my grandson went off to war and didn’t come back.’ I changed so much, she didn’t recognize me. ... The Army changes you, me especially ... dirty language, seeing some really bad stuff. I still suffer from that today.”
Healing and Purpose
C’Hair spent two years trying to rebuild his life and adjusting to returning home. With the help of his family and his native community, he found his way back. He credits sweat lodges and prayer, as well as family support and counseling. He still receives professional care, often via conference call. Each element helped him reengage with life.
After his tour, he held various jobs around Fremont County, then found his purpose working with tribal children. He helps them and others regain a sense of culture, particularly through learning and speaking the Arapaho language.
“I was a real Arapaho Indian before I left. I spoke the language, I (still) speak the language,” C’Hair said. “We are still Arapaho people; we still have our culture here. The main thing is our language holds us together.”
He works at the Arapaho Immersion School, helping educate young children about the culture of their people. Only Arapaho is spoken at the school.
“(Arapaho) is a pure, clean language,” C’Hair stated. “I give back (helping the children). I feel good talking our native Arapaho language. It’s more colorful; it’s like a poem.”
Speaking English is like “watching black and white TV,” he explained, but Arapaho “is colorful, visual, beautiful.”
He also teaches Arapaho as a foreign language at Central Wyoming Community College, and he taught the language for several years at the University of Wyoming.
Although he returned to the United States during the anti-war protests, his native culture embraces veterans, he said. There are many veterans, including those from the Vietnam, Korean and other wars, who are part of the tribe, and they are often honored at pow-wows and other events.
“Veterans are held in high esteem among our people,” he said.
C’Hair, as an elder for the Arapaho tribe, often participates in gatherings honoring tribal veterans. His service includes carrying the colors.
“I do that – it gives me a good feeling,” he said. “Even though it has bad memories, that’s one thing I feel good about.”
Another thing he feels good about is helping preserve the Arapaho culture, a culture that helped him before, during and after the Vietnam War.
“It’s the most important thing in my life. I dedicate my life to my language, to my people, to our lifeways,” he stated. “I want to contribute as much as I can to our native language, our culture, our lifeways. I want to see my kids, my grandsons, grow up in a good way – that’s why I help out.”