Above and Beyond
Was a Navajo soldier overlooked for a Medal of Honor?

by Cindy Yurth Tséyi Bureau 
Special to SENAA International 
27 January 2009

KITS’IILI, Ariz. — As Tom Gorman read the citations for the two posthumous Congressional Medals of Honor recently awarded to veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom, they sounded familiar.

Both men had thrown themselves on live explosives, using their bodies to shield their comrades from the full force of the blast.

Two years earlier, Gorman, the claims agent at the Navajo Veterans Affairs’ Chinle office, had read an almost identical account of a Navajo soldier as he entered information on Vietnam veterans into the office’s computer database.

He went back into his files and took another look.

There it was: a posthumous Silver Star citation for Spc. E-4 Huskie Yazzie Begay Ten, dated March 8, 1968.

Gorman read through it again. Ten was serving as a machine gunner on Feb. 4, 1968, when his company encountered “a company-size force of North Vietnamese regulars positioned on a hill several miles southwest of Pleiku,” the citation read.

Like his modern counterparts, Ten had thown himself on a grenade to shield his comrades. But this was after he had been wounded three times, and urged by a medic to leave the battlefield.

“Specialist Ten elected to remain and provide protective fire for the wounded,” according to the citation. The rest of his unit was able to withdraw to safety.

“He had done the same thing as these Iraq vets, and even more, because he had already taken three hits,” observed Gorman.

Why was Ten only awarded a Silver Star while his Iraq War counterparts received Congressional Medals of Honor? Gorman believes there’s only one explanation.

“If he had been a young Anglo-American man with blond hair and blue eyes, he would have gotten the Medal of Honor,” Gorman stated.

Gorman is determined to make things right. He wants Ten’s commendation reconsidered and elevated to a Medal of Honor. It won’t be easy.

For one thing, applying to Congress for the award involves submitting a full biography of the proposed recipient, and the details of Ten’s short life — he was 22 when he threw himself on that grenade — are sketchy at best.

Ten’s surviving family members here at the foot of Black Mesa have agreed to help Gorman as much as they can, but Ten’s parents are dead, and most records of his personal and military history have been lost. In fact, the family can’t find his Silver Star.

“Nobody even has a picture of him,” said his niece, Louise Begay, at a family gathering Friday to discuss the effort.

The family has attempted to trace records of his early life, but their efforts have been complicated by the fact that, like many Navajos of his generation, Ten appears to have gone by at least three different names.

The surname “Fastrunner” is on his birth certificate, and he was known in his earliest years as “Fastrunner Biyé” — son of Fastrunner. Later, “Biyé” appears to have been Anglicized to “Begay,” a surname still used by many family members.

The family isn’t sure how the last name “Ten” ended up on his military records … that was a childhood nickname the young man’s friends teased him with because he had 10 sisters.

To complicate matters, the family has found Ten’s first name (which was actually “Ashkii,” Navajo for “boy”) variously spelled as “Husky” and “Huskie.”

“In those days, nobody around here spoke English very well,” explained Ten’s niece, Helene Nez-Hill. “They were pretty much at the mercy of anyone who wrote something down in English.”

The family, in fact, was surprised when Gorman approached them about applying for a Medal of Honor. As far as they knew, said Nez-Hill, Ten had accidentally stepped on a land mine.

Again, “It’s possible someone didn’t translate well when they presented my grandparents with the medal,” she surmised.

A 1968 Arizona Republic article is the only surviving record of the ceremony. Under a photograph of two obviously grief-stricken elderly Navajos identified as “Mr. and Mrs. Ashihi Ten” (although their descendants say they didn’t use that name) accepting the boxed medal, the reporter records that a 1st Lt. John Salter read the citation, with a clerk from the Piñon Trading Post translating into Navajo.

With little formal education, still reeling from the death of their offspring, listening to a translated account, is it possible Ten’s parents didn’t understand the significance of the award?

Nez-Hill thinks so.

“I think to them, the main thing was that they had lost a son,” she said. “I remember my mother (Ten’s sister) saying, ‘When we (Navajos) signed the treaty, they told us to put our guns down. Why did they take our kids to fight the enemy?’”

Ten’s nephew Don Sage, who also fought in the Vietnam War, was serving in San Diego when he got word of Ten’s death. Even as a fellow soldier, the heroic nature of Ten’s actions didn’t really sink in, he recalled.

“I had my own things to think about back then,” he said Friday. “I think I’m feeling (Ten’s death) more right now than I did then.”

Sage said Ten was a gentle, soft-spoken man, not a natural fighter.

“He didn’t volunteer,” he noted, “He got drafted. When you think of somebody laying down his life for his unit when he didn’t even want to be there, I think it makes it even more striking.”

If Ten’s biography could be composed of family memories, it would be a thick book. All the nieces and nephews remember their uncle the same way: tall and strong, a natural leader who always had time for the children in the clan, “and there were billions of us,” recalled Nez-Hill.

And everyone remembers how he dressed.

“Always, always, in a white T-shirt,” said Nez-Hill.

And, added Begay, “It was always very clean,” which is nothing short of amazing when one looks around the windswept, dusty environs of Old Tree Ranch, where Ten grew up.

But the government wants paper, not memories, so Gorman and Ten’s family continue the search. Another nephew, John Henry Nez, even traveled to Oklahoma to find the old Indian school Ten attended as a child, only to be told they never had a Navajo student.

“They said they had some Arapahos,” he said. “Navajo, Arapaho — it rhymes. Maybe they’re just confused.”

Even if their quest to properly honor Ten is unsuccessful, said Begay, it has drawn the family together and made them take a closer look at their past.

“I feel like I’m just now getting to know my uncle, even though he died,” she said.

If anyone has some knowledge of Ten’s life and wishes to help with the quest, he or she is urged to call Gorman at 928-674-2224.

“This is something our whole tribe should get behind,” said Gorman, as Ten would be the first Diné to receive the military’s highest honor.



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html