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A salute

Published June 13. 2014 05:01PM

With so many Washington elitists motivated by politics these days, hearing them use words like "honor" or "hero" is not very persuasive.

A day after the Obama administration completed the exchange of five Taliban operatives for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Susan Rice, the national security adviser, said he had served with "honor and distinction." The president even had a Rose Garden ceremony with the soldier's parents to announce the exchange.

Fellow soldiers in his platoon quickly challenged the hero tag, saying Bergdahl walked off his military outpost in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. Going absent without leave or deserting your position are crimes in the military.

While the administration went out of its way to honor Bergdahl, there was no acknowledgment of those soldiers who reportedly died searching for him.

We also heard nothing from this White House on the passing of Chester Nez, a true American hero who died a week ago at the age of 93 at his home in Albuquerque, N.M. Nez was the last surviving member of the 29 original Navajo code talkers. "Windtalkers," a 2002 film starring Nicolas Cage, was based on these remarkable soldiers, whose coded messages confused the Japanese in every Pacific Marine assault between 1942 and 1945.

A few months ago, I contacted Judith Schiess Avila, who co-authored "Code Talker," a memoir for Chester Nez. After losing both legs to diabetes, she said Nez had slowed down in recent months. Until the end though, he was always eager to share his story, especially to with school children.

Nez had every reason to be bitter toward this country. Native American children of his generation were forcibly taken from their homes and sent to Indian Affairs boarding schools to "assimilate" into white society. At age 8, Nez entered the first of a series of such schools that he would attend in New Mexico and Arizona.

They were forbidden to speak their native tongue, forced to wear "American" clothes and assigned "American" names. Nez was assigned the name Chester, after President Chester A. Arthur. He remembered having his mouth washed out with soap at school because he spoke his native language.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Marines recruited young men fluent in Navajo and Nez was among the original group responding. Weighing just 122 pounds, he barely met the minimum weight requirement.

Because the code talker program was a secret, there was no fanfare when Nez and the others arrived home in 1945. Nez was plagued by nightmares - he admitted going "psycho" - and spent more than five months in a military hospital. There was no post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) program for soldiers dealing with the trauma of war. His father felt that his nightmares were caused by the spirits of dead Japanese and after undergoing a traditional healing ceremony, he was better able to cope.

Hearing Hillary Clinton talk about being in debt or carrying mortgages on their family properties pales in comparison to the plight of Native Americans living in the Four Corners Navajo Nation. When Chester's sister Dora died in 2008, her house was still without electricity.

Nez said in an interview that when he joined the Marine Corps, he thought about how the Navajo people were mistreated. But he then thought this would be his chance to do something for his country.

Chester Nez, not Bowe Bergdahl, deserved to be honored last week.

By Jim Zbick

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