By Sgt. Ashunteia Smith.
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – “I belong to the Navajo Tribe,” said Spc. Denise Smith, a UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter Maintainer assigned to Delta Company, 2-158 Assault Helicopter Battalion, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. “According to my Certificate of Indian Blood, I am full Navajo.”
Spc. Smith is a Soldier from Tolani Lake, Ariz., in the southwest region of the Navajo Nation. Navajo Nation is a Native American reservation that occupies portions of southeastern Utah, northwestern New Mexico, and northeastern Arizona.
Although Smith grew up on a reservation, she didn’t have the same traditional upbringing as many Native Americans in her community.
“My parents chose to teach my brothers and me about Christianity,” said Smith. “They also put us in a private Christian school on the reservation.”
Growing up her mother often spoke of the troubles she encountered by only speaking the Navajo language. It was for that reason that she decided to not teach her children the language.
“I still ask her to teach me phrases and words here and there,” said Smith. “I hope to learn the Navajo language someday fluently.”
Becoming fluent in the Navajo language is very important to her. She hopes to one day pass the language on to her children and grandchildren. The number of Navajo speakers is in decline, and she believes it is up to her and other Navajo speakers to keep it alive within not only their families, but also pass it on to other tribal members so that the language does not fade away.
“I feel very family-oriented due to my cultural upbringing,” said Smith. “We value and respect our families and we’re always close to one another.”
Although Smith didn’t grow up with some traditions, such as the language, she is still keeping the traditional Navajo family-orientation alive; it doesn’t take a major holiday or special occasion for her family to gather. Growing up so close to her family only helped influence her decision to join the Army, knowing that she would have their support.
“I knew from a young age that I wanted to serve in the military,” said Smith.
With the support and backing from her family she is happy that she stuck with her decision to serve in the Army.
“I feel very proud to be serving,” said Smith. “My family is also very proud, especially my paternal grandfather who also served in the Army.”
Spc. Smith feels that her Army experience is going very well. She has gotten the opportunity to meet people from all over the country and has made many memories. Her first duty station after completing basic combat training and her job-specific advanced individualized training was the Republic of Korea. At that point in her life it was the longest, and farthest, that she had ever been away from home.
“At first I had a hard time leaving my family for the Army because I’d never really left home before,” said Smith. “I managed to keep my spirits up by meeting new people and making friends within my unit when I would start to feel homesick.”
After being stationed in Korea, she was assigned to Washington, where she then met her husband. In addition to the new friends that she has made throughout her Army journey, she also started a family of her own.
Smith is currently expecting a little girl, who she intends to raise within the traditions of the Navajo community, such as their native language.
The month of November is Native American Heritage Month. Native Americans have served with honor, dedication and distinction, and have a long legacy of service in the Army. This observance provides us an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the service of current Native American Soldiers and over 150,000 veterans hailing from those communities.