Story and photos
by JOE GIDDENS
Happy 244th birthday to the United States Marine Corps and Veterans Day 2019.
Pima Community College’s celebration of these occasions was a free event that featured local organizations to support our Pima veterans. On hand to celebrate was the Flowing Wells School District JROTC with a military drill presentation and the Marana School District Girls’ Choir singing the national anthem.
Pima held its Eighth Annual Veterans Day Celebration and Marine Corps cake cutting ceremony on Nov. 7 at the Downtown Campus. This year’s celebration took on an indigenous people’s flair to coincide with National Native American Heritage Month.
The 2019 keynote speaker was retired Master Sergeant of the United States Army and Pima alumnus Gary Anderson. Anderson enlisted at 17 and later received Special Forces training for the Green Berets. He was deployed across the globe before being assigned to the University of Arizona as a military science instructor.
Near the end of his career, he was approached with an offer to become the dean of minority students for Native Americans. However, because he didn’t receive a college degree, he was ineligible despite his superior performance with students.
“So I started (at) Pima Community College,” he said. “First school I’ve ever been to that I didn’t have to do push-ups in.”
Anderson comes from the Gila River community. He received his associate degree in early childhood education from Pima and his bachelor’s in family science from the University of Arizona.
One of the most exciting traditions of the event is the cutting of the Marine Corps cake with a ceremonial saber. As is tradition, the first slice of cake is given to the oldest Marine in attendance with the second piece given to the youngest marine.
The Marine Corps was founded on Nov. 10, 1775. When the Continental Congress commissioned Samuel Nicholas, he raised two battalions of Marines and began the work of enlisting people at “Tun Tavern” in Philadelphia later that day. Anderson’s keynote speech focused on those Marines who enlisted from the Gila River Indian Community and the social progress of Native Americans in the United States.
Cpl. Richard C. Lewis was the first Pima Indian to be killed in Word War II. Upon his death, 600 Papago and Pima were at his memorial in February 1943. He was enrolled at the Arizona State Teachers College before enlisting in the Marines in his junior year, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
PFC. Robert Eugene Allison was killed on the first day of the Battle of Guam on July 21, 1944, at the age of 18.
PFC. Joshua Morris was killed in action in July 26, 1944, while manning the machine gun to provide cover fire for his withdrawing platoon of 40 men.
“His body was recovered still manning the machine gun,” Anderson said.
Sgt. Johnson McAfee Jr. was killed in action on Nov. 28, 1950, in Korea. On his enlistment paperwork in 1942, he stated his desire “to join the Marines because they’re tough,” according to the Gila River Indian News.
His remains were not returned to Arizona until March of last year. They were buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu until they were identified by the the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Lance Cpl. Edgar Acunia was killed on March 4, 1969, in South Vietnam by a fellow Marine when returning from a night patrol.
The most recent Gila River Marine to lose his life in a conflict was Lance Cpl. Joe Jackson in April 2011 in Afghanistan. An I.E.D ended his life when he was returning from patrol. He was 22.
“American Indians who have served their countries armed forces that are greater number per capita than any other ethnic group,” he said. “They have served with distinction in every major conflict in over 200 years.”
However, Anderson pointed out that despite their legacy of service, the country they have served also has a history of injustice toward Native people. Anderson pointed to Matthew B. Juan from Gila River who was the first Arizonan to die in World War I, noting that Juan’s sacrifice predates Native Americans receiving full citizenship, which didn’t take place until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
Anderson also was fighting back tears when he discussed another chapter of our history and connection to the Gila River community.
“And the one thing that we should all be ashamed of is the Gila River Internment camp where Japanese Americans were forced to live during the war,” he said. “And those people that were forced to live there 23 were killed in combat,” he said.
Anderson expressed his pride in his years in the Army and mentioned how his Native American heritage sometimes raises questions with others considering the injustice carried out for colonization.
“This is our country,” he said. “This is our future. We’ve always been here. Native Americans have always been here.
“We are keepers of the land. We will always be protectors of the land and the people.”