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Native American Veterans Find Solace Over A Common Table

Dec 23, 2014

For many veterans life after war is anything but easy, once home veterans often find themselves isolated from the world around them. But one Fresno group’s mission is to provide a setting for veterans to come out of hiding and also learn more about their culture. This story is part of our series “Common Threads: Veterans Still Fighting The War." Support for this series comes from Cal Humanities, as part of the War Comes Home initiative.

"Some of our veterans are stuck in that rut. Sometimes it takes a little a help from another individual that's already been there and done it."

Every Friday a group of friends meets for breakfast in Fresno. Last Friday they met at Cucca’s in Fresno’s Tower District.

They’re a diverse group of more than 20. There’s women, men, people in their 30’s, 40’s and all the way into their 70’s. They have two things in common. They’re Native American and veterans.

They call themselves the American Indian Association of Central California or AIVA. Their mission is to help veterans in need, provide a commonplace for Native American veterans to share their lives and for outreach in the community. The group also performs military color guard routines at ceremonies.

Frank Gonzalez is an Apache Indian who served during the Vietnam War as a heavy equipment mechanic. In 1996 he helped found the group. He runs the groups Facebook account and leads announcements at the weekly breakfast.

AIVA carries the colors at ceremonies, funerals and at Pow Wows.
Credit AIVA

Gonzalez says AIVA is a safe place where veterans can receive help with their issues from people who look just like them.

“Some of our veterans are stuck in that rut,” Gonzalez says. “Sometimes it takes a little a help from another individual that’s already been there and done it.”

He says the group is a place where veterans feel at home.  

Top left to bottom right: Frank Gonzalez, Linda Hernandez, Yolanda Trini and Rene Duran Diaz.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“Well there is distrust with the VA, but once you get veterans involved with veterans together they feel real comfortable,” Gonzalez says.

"I don't discuss it with my family because they don't understand. Well, did you hit anybody, did you kill anybody? That's the question they ask and we don't want to talk about stuff like that."

Rene Duran Diaz is one of those veterans. He served in the Army during Desert Storm and Dessert Shield.  

“Today my walk is different than what it used to be,” Diaz says.

Diaz who’s a Cherokowa, Apache and Pascua Yaki Indian says the breakfast group has given him purpose during his bouts with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Sometimes we don’t have to speak. Just with a look or a glance we know where the other man’s coming from and it helps me to be able to know that somebody understands where I’m coming from where I’ve been and today what I’m doing,” Diaz “That’s something you don’t just get anywhere.”

I met with this group of veterans two Fridays this month and heard story after story over breakfast burritos, coffee and flan. It was at this common table that veterans found connections because of their ethnicity and time spent in the military.

Linda Hernández – an Apache Indian with 23 years of service in the Army –pulled me aside the second Friday to tell me her reasons for joining AIVA. She’s found friendship with the only people who can truly understand her struggle: other veterans.

“I don’t discuss it with my family because they don’t understand,” Hernandez says. “Well, did you hit anybody, did you kill anybody? That’s the question they ask and we don’t want to talk about stuff like that. We just want to get better and go on with our lives and try to remember the good times and not the nightmares and not being able to sleep and stuff.”  

Dolores Slocum joined Aiva earlier this year and says the camaraderie with other Native American veterans is connecting her to her culture.
Credit AIVA
"It kind of helps me grow in my religion and my culture and gets me grounded. And I get to hear these guys bitch about Vietnam. They always kind of tease me because I'm one of the younger ones and a girl."

But the breakfasts aren’t only about sharing the wounds of war. They are also about having a good time and well, breakfast.

Dolores Slocum, an Apache woman who served as an Air Force nurse in the early 90s, sipped coffee as we talked about her four years in the service.  She laughed with me about a memory from basic training when her commander told her to jump over a four foot telephone poll.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“Some guy says you come into my man’s Air Force and you can’t even jump over these sticks?” Slocum says. “And I’m looking at him going, you’ve got to be kidding me. So I went all the way back and threw myself at it and flipped myself over and the look on his face was like (shocked) and I turned around and I was like yeah.”

"We don't know what that individual is going through unless they speak. Nobody knew what I was going through unless I told them what was going on with me and doing so people reached out to help me."

Slocum joined AIVA this summer because she wanted to be around an older generation of Native Americans like her father.

“It kind of helps me grow in my religion and my culture and gets me grounded,” Slocum says. “And I get to hear these guys bitch about Vietnam. I think these guys are fun. They always kind of tease me because I’m one of the younger ones and a girl.”

And its younger veterans like Slocum that AIVA would like to attract. Rene Duran Diaz who is part of AIVA’s color guard has a message for younger veterans.

“I want to tell them to give the VA a chance and the veteran community as well because we don’t know what that individual is going through unless they speak,” Diaz says. “Nobody knew what I was going through unless I told them what was going on with me and doing so people reached out to help me.”

The group will present the colors at a Pow Wow at the convention center on January 1st and hopefully will add a few new members there.

 

Support for this series comes from Cal Humanities, as part of the War Comes Home initiative.