Young Navajos follow in footsteps of Marine code talkers
by Steve Schmidt, Staff Writer
with contributions by Danielle Cervantes, Library Researcher
23 November 2003
Part 1 of 2

Friday night, May 30, 6 o'clock ...

Wind blowing through his ink-black hair, Nathaniel Bitsui stands on the chalky rim of the Grand Canyon. It's cloudy out. The dirt boils with bugs.

Nate graduates tonight, this spring evening. The Navajo boy wears a shiny red cap and gown to his Grand Canyon High School commencement, held on the rim. When it's over, he flings his cap into the air.

The next day he turns 18.

The day after that he's supposed to leave his northern Arizona home for Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego.

It's overwhelming, all this first a graduation, then a milestone birthday, then boot camp. Take a deep breath, Nate tells himself. Steady yourself.

The night of his birthday, he starts crying.

"Are you all right?" asks his father, Francis Bitsui.

"I'm sad. I'm just sad."

Each year, 19,000 young men pass through the black metal gates of Marine Corps Recruit Depot near Lindbergh Field for the crucible called boot camp. Most are fresh out of high school and ache to start a new life, even if leaving the old one pains them. They're nervous, patriotic and a bit clueless.

Nate hoped to start boot camp in June. Julio Nez, another 18-year-old from Arizona, planned to start the same month.

They are keepers of a legacy both are Navajo Indians, both burn to be Marines.

In World War II, the storied Navajo code talkers helped America defeat Japan. At Iwo Jima and other battles, the Marines Corps and the nation's largest Indian reservation forged a blood bond.

The red rock, sheep-studded Navajo Nation straddles three states Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The Navajo have their own government and language, their own problems with alcohol and poverty, their own myths and proud ways.

Yet their ties to the leathernecks and San Diego run deep.

Signs of the Marines are everywhere on the reservation, from code talker displays inside fast-food stands to Semper Fi bumper stickers on pickup trucks. Even in remote corners of the sprawling territory, where rain turns the dirt roads to gumbo much of the year, it's not unusual to spot photographs of someone's dad or uncle at boot camp.

No one made Nate and Julio join.

They could stay home or, armed with their good grades, head to college and watch the war on terrorism on their dorm room TVs.

Or they could take the boldest leap of their lives and spend a grueling 13 weeks of training in San Diego.

Because it's in their bloodline.

Because it's a 9/11 world and they want a role in it.

Because they ache to be tested in ways young men have been tested for centuries.

They know nothing of battle, yet their thoughts are full of it, sometimes in ways others can't fathom. "I really want to see what war is like," Julio says.

But before they dive into the military, they must overcome another challenge: their final months at home, from the complicated goodbyes to the questions and fears that surface as war edges close.

January 2003. President Bush declares Saddam Hussein a dire threat. In his State of the Union speech, the president says Iraq must be disarmed. And if the world won't move against Baghdad, U.S. forces will, Bush says. Thousands of Marines and other troops head to the Middle East.

Nate walks alone in the rugged Arizona outback in January, gripping a Remington rifle.

It's beautiful and dangerous country; it's also his back yard.

Nate and his family live in the Navajo village of Cameron, Ariz., in a mobile home parked at the end of a dirt road. They have no indoor plumbing or electricity. Nearby is a wood outhouse and a small hogan, a traditional Navajo lodge.

Behind the home is a deep gorge with rattlesnakes, quicksand and gnarled rocks.

Nate likes to burrow for hours into the crevices of the rocky walls of the gorge. He stares through his rifle scope, talking to himself, imagining his place in the world. I'm a Marine sniper. I'm in Baghdad. I'm hunting terrorists.


The sound ricochets off the gorge's wine-tinted walls.

At 5 feet 10 inches tall, Nate has the lanky build of a long-distance runner, ideal for billy-goating from rock to rock through his back yard. He has brown eyes and walks with a slight slouch.

For a 17-year-old, he's refreshingly short on attitude. He opens doors for adults and watches his manners around girls. He has a tough time saying no.

"You are a nice guy," a classmate writes in Nate's Grand Canyon High yearbook. "Sometimes too nice."

He likes Snickers bars, Navajo fry bread and his white Ford pickup. He likes a lot of girls at school, too, but he has trouble keeping a relationship going more than a few weeks. He's not sure why.

"My truck is my most reliable girlfriend," he likes to joke.

His mom, Esther Bitsui, is a police dispatcher at Grand Canyon National Park. Francis Bitsui works on the park trail maintenance crew. Nate has two sisters, 14-year-old Yolanda and 19-year-old Illanda, who attends nursing school.

When Esther learns her son wants to join the Marines, it spooks her. Bush's saber-rattling State of the Union speech doesn't help.

But Nate has yearned to be a Marine since he was little. He's had relatives in the Marines and believes it's his calling. The call is so strong it overrides any doubts or fears. "It's a debt I owe to my ancestors, to the Navajo, to America."

Sept. 11, 2001, cemented his decision.

"Think of all the people who died in that," he says, clambering over rocks near his home. "Think of how many kids are motherless, fatherless or even orphans now."

Pearl Harbor packed the same punch.

In early 1942, just after the Japanese bombed Hawaii, Marine officers in San Diego turned to the isolated reservation for help. The Marines recruited hundreds of Navajo men to relay battlefield messages in a code based on the tribe's spoken tongue.

For decades, many white teachers on the reservation had discouraged even physically beat Navajo schoolchildren for speaking their complex native language.

Now their words were weapons.

After completing boot camp in San Diego, these new Marine code talkers steamed into the Pacific, into the teeth of the enemy.

"The hard-hitting leathernecks needed an unbreakable code and they got it," The San Diego Union reported in 1945. "For three years, wherever the Marines landed, the Japanese got an earful of strange gurgling noises interspersed with other sounds resembling the call of a Tibetan monk and the sound of a hot water bottle being emptied."

The marriage of two warrior worlds, Navajo and Marine, was sealed.

Today the Navy, Army and Air Force comb the reservation for new recruits, dangling money, scholarships and other perks. But the Marines offer something the hardy tribe finds deeply appealing: the challenge of Marine boot camp the longest of any military branch and the chance to be part of a historic legacy.

"A lot of recruiters can't persuade anybody to go anywhere else but the Marine Corps," says Marine recruiter Sgt. Gerald Nez, who is Navajo though not related to Julio.

Both the Navajo and the Marines are older than the country. The ancestors of the Navajo settled in the Southwest centuries ago. The Marines were formed in 1775.

Both hold their ghosts close. Navajo culture is rich with tales of spirits engaged in heroic deeds. Marines talk of their storied battles with dewy-eyed reverence.

Both are intensely patriotic, although the Navajo have little reason to be.

The U.S. government waged war on the tribe in the mid-1800s. Frontiersman Kit Carson and others raided their crops and livestock. Thousands of men, women and children were herded hundreds of miles to a desert camp. Many died, while the rest were kept in disease-ridden confinement for years.

Many Navajo still talk of the U.S. attacks and forced marches their ancestors endured.

Yet these are the same people who fought in World War II. The Navajo maintain a veterans cemetery on the reservation, covered with U.S. flags whipping in the wind.

These are the people who raised Nate.

Gorge-climbing, Remington-packing, I'm-fighting-terrorists Nate.

It's January and the high school senior has a job lined up with the Marines. If he survives boot camp, he'll join an elite squad guarding the White House and the president.

He's never been to San Diego. Now, it's almost all he thinks about.

March. Bush demands Hussein leave Iraq within 48 hours or face war. There's no doubt Hussein possesses some of the most lethal weapons ever devised, Bush says. "We will help you build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free," he promises Iraqis.

Julio Nez stares hard into a mirror.

The Chinle High School senior sits in art class, working on a self-portrait. It's a clear March day on the reservation, thousands of miles from Baghdad.

He stares again. Long eyelashes. A wisp of a goatee. A wide brown face, and broad shoulders built for the long haul.

When Julio decided to join the Marines, he wanted to sign up for 20 years. His recruiter wondered if he was joking. You can only sign up for four, he was told.

Twenty years? How gung-ho is that?

But he's 18 years old. He's acting his age. He loves his hometown of Chinle, but he can't leave soon enough. "I'm just waiting for the day," he says.

Chinle sits on a broad plain in the heart of the reservation. It has a Burger King, a Taco Bell, a stone church, a shuttered airport, a strip mall and a supermarket with a bunch of pickup trucks parked out front.

Stray cattle sometimes strut past the town's lone stoplight.

Julio and his family live in a three-bedroom house built by the federal government decades ago. It needs fresh paint. There's a tree dying in the yard. Inside, the walls are lined with family photos and Navajo weavings. Julio keeps a TV in his bedroom, next to his favorite toy his Xbox.

Julio could head to college. He has the grades. He could go to art school. He's won a string of awards for his drawings, mostly portraits of family.

But he's fixed on the Marines. Self-assured and burning with determination, he craves a Marine's life.

His oldest brother, Philbert Nez, was a leatherneck. The Nez family caravaned to San Diego in 1994 for his boot camp graduation. Little Julio, a third-grader at the time, watched in wonder and awe.

While in the Marines, Philbert specialized in maintaining aviation electronics. Julio wants to do the same.

Philbert never saw battle. He left the Marines four years ago. But now it's March 2003, and the United States is on the brink of war.

Julio's 19-year-old girlfriend, Ranae Bia, is worried. Are you really going into the Marines, she asks him. Are you serious? What about us?

Ranae wants to support Julio because he's always backed her. Ranae used to ditch high school a lot and smoke marijuana.

Julio persuaded her to stop. "He's the one who changed me from all the bad things," she says.

The Navajo Nation a region six times the size of San Diego County is full of similar stories. Many don't have happy endings.

Booze is banned on Navajo land, yet alcoholism remains the bane of the reservation. Bootleggers peddle beer and liquor out of trucks. Destitute and desperate for a buzz, some Navajo get high by drinking a dangerous mix of water and hair spray.

Alcoholism is one reason why the Navajo won't allow casinos on the 27,000-square-mile reservation. Many fear gambling will feed the addiction.

Alcoholism also fuels the reservation's violent crime rate, which is six times the national average. U.S. officials say about 40 percent of the violent crime on the nation's Indian reservations occurs on Navajo land.

With few jobs and a nearly Third World economy, 2 out of 5 Navajo live below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent are unemployed.

Julio's mom, Peggy Sue Nez, 49, runs a tribal-funded welfare-to-work program in Chinle, population 8,800. It tries to wean the locals off government handouts. A confident and ambitious woman, she's bent on improving the lot of her people. "I think we're living a life of confusion right now," she says.

Julio's dad, Harry Nez, 49, lives temporarily in Phoenix, where he's going to computer programming school. He used to fix automobiles for an living.

Harry visits the scenic reservation on weekends. To see the striking, open landscape again, beautiful in its barrenness, feeds the soul, he says.

Decades of social problems and overreliance on the government continue to fray life on the reservation, home to 180,000 people.

But it hasn't lost its resilient heart.

The Navajo language remains the dominant tongue in most towns. Family life revolves around an ancient clan system. On weekends, Navajo hogans come alive with purification ceremonies and other native rites. Medicine men sing through the starry night.

When the code talkers went to war, they fought not only to defend America, but also to protect their sacred territory.

"The major motivating factor for a lot of us is that we were fighting for our land, our Navajo land," recalls Peter MacDonald, 74, a World War II code talker and a former president of the Navajo Nation.

So it is with Julio's generation.

But right now, a few weeks before heading to San Diego, joining the U.S. military seems more like a grand adventure to Julio. Twenty years as a Marine? Why not?

He spends long hours playing "Halo" on his Xbox. In the video game, a laser-gun-packing Marine travels the universe, whacking aliens.

Julio knows the disturbing news out of Iraq. He tries not to dwell on it.

"If I think about it too much, I'll

hesitate," he says.

Late March. U.S. and British troops storm Iraq. Warplanes pummel Baghdad. Hussein remains defiant, but the Iraqi army seems to melt away. Among the first U.S. war dead is a Hopi Indian woman from the Navajo reservation.

Peggy Sue Nez worries about Julio and her oldest son, Philbert. A member of the Army National Guard, Philbert may be shipped overseas to fight, she finds out.

"What do you think about the war?" she asks Julio as U.S. troops invade Iraq. "Are you at least scared?"

"I'm not afraid," he says. "If they ask me to go, I'll go."

"It's not like Xbox. It's not some video game."

"Yeah, I know, I know"

Meanwhile, Esther and Francis Bitsui keep up brave faces. They don't want to voice their worries to Nate. They don't want to cloud his head with doubt.

But privately, Esther mourns. It's tough enough to see your only son leave home and head for the military. But what's happening overseas makes it harder.

"The war makes it very impossible," she says. "I can't get a grip on it."

At school, Nate reads "The Red Badge of Courage" in English class. The Civil War classic is about a young man who joins the Union Army against his mother's wishes. He aches to fight, but in his first battle, the young man turns coward and runs.

At Grand Canyon High, which is off the reservation, Nate and his classmates discuss the novel. The teacher mentions the war in Iraq, then poses a question.

What does it take to be a good soldier?

The students pipe up.

"Know friend from foe."

"Get all fit and buff like Rambo."

"Shoot Saddam right between the eyes."

"You have to be pretty stupid to go to war in the first place."

"What?" asks the teacher.

"You have to be stupid to go to war."

"Do you think Nate is stupid?"

"No," the kid sputters.

Nate sits there and doesn't argue because he's heard this kind of talk before. Others around school, others his age, have told him he's dumb for doing this.

But what, he wants to know, is so stupid about standing up for your country?

May. Hussein's regime is history. U.S.-led forces occupy Iraq. Bush stands on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, heading for San Diego, and declares a major victory in the war on terrorism. "We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide," he says.

Take a deep breath, Nate tells himself. Steady yourself.

It's graduation night at Grand Canyon High, along the canyon's south rim. He's turning 18 and going to San Diego for the first time in his life.

"Come back a Marine," one of his recruiters tells him. "Don't come in my door unless you're in uniform."

To get ready over the spring, Nate jogged, often up the Grand Canyon's steep trails. Rifle in hand, he played more patriot games in his back yard gorge.

Mentally, he's on edge. He thinks he'll do OK in boot camp, but how can he be sure? About 10 percent of recruits never make it to graduation.

His family gives him a small leather pouch filled with corn pollen, a form of Navajo blessing. They say it'll protect him in boot camp.

His mother is doing better now that the war in Iraq appears to be winding down. She's deeply proud of her son but feels a sense of loss.

At the Phoenix airport, before boarding the plane for San Diego, Nate hugs his parents. Then, just like that, he walks away, refusing to linger. Nate worries if he stays in that spot, his mother's arms around him, that he'll cry, too. He doesn't want that.

In Chinle, the goodbyes are also complicated.

A restless Julio writes a letter to his mother, declaring his long-awaited independence. He writes that he can't wait to leave.

Peggy Sue takes it in stride. She's happy the worst of the war in Iraq appears to be over. She wants Julio to know he has her complete support, despite her initial misgivings about Iraq.

Julio and his girlfriend, Ranae, promise to write each other a lot.

Physically, there's no question he's ready. He's buff from months of jogging and weight lifting. His Marine recruiters expect great things from him. He expects great things from himself; he has a legacy to live up to.

Before heading to San Diego, Julio receives the blessings of his family during an all-night ceremony inside a hogan. His grandfather, a medicine man, offers prayers and sings ancient songs of protection. The Nez family sits on sheepskin blankets spread on the dirt floor.

That same day, Harry Nez tells a story, one his son has never heard.

Harry says he wanted to join the Marines once. He even went to boot camp in San Diego, but was discharged because of severe acne. He was later granted a medical waiver and given another chance to join, he tells a surprised Julio. But he didn't follow up.

It's the biggest regret of his life.

"I am proud of you, son," Harry says.

Julio arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot on June 16. Nate came two weeks earlier. The two recruits knew each other before boot camp, but not well.

Both arrived at night, spilling out of a bus packed with raw recruits. Marine sergeants with barrel chests barked in their frightened faces. Take off your hats! Take off your piercings! Take off your clothes! Put on your new clothes! Get your head shaved! Now!

So began their summer in boot camp.

Then came Black Friday, the day when recruits sit on the floor of their barracks and meet the men who will be their drill instructors for the next

three months.

That's putting it politely. Black Friday is when the already-shaken, sleep-starved Marine wannabees meet the men who will take them to hell and back.

Starting right now.


Orders fly.

"Get in line," the drill instructors scream.

"Yes, sir!"

"Make your beds."

"Yes, sir!"

"Get your seabags! We don't call them duffel bags here; we call them seabags."

"Yes, sir!"

"You better pick up that seabag or I'M GOING TO CHOKE THE F----N' LIFE OUT OF YOU!"

Even the hardiest recruits waver. Doubts creep in. Julio and Nate question themselves. I volunteered for this? What have I gotten myself into? What am I doing here?

I've made a terrible mistake.

This story concludes tomorrow.

Steve Schmidt: (619) 293-1380; steve.schmidt@uniontrib.com.

Union-Tribune library researcher Danielle Cervantes contributed to this report.

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


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