I started singing on the drum when I returned from Vietnam.  One of my most memorable times singing was at the dedication of The Highground in 1988. The Highground is a memorial park that pays tribute to veterans.

Photo courtesy Gary Kmiecik

Gary Kmiecik | Lac du Flambeau, WI

They were going to dedicate the “Fragments” statue—a Vietnam veterans’ tribute—and they asked if we would be there for the ceremony. We sang a Vietnam veterans’ song that had been given to us. They draped a South Vietnamese flag over the memorial, and as they slowly removed that flag, we sang the song. 

On the day of the ceremony, the sky was blue and there were some intermittent clouds. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people, were there for the dedication. A lot of bikers, a lot of Vietnam vets, their families and children. Four helicopters came, and they flew in each of the four directions. And they kind of tilted themselves toward the ground a little bit, almost like they were honoring what was taking place there.

As soon as our drum group started singing, it started to rain. I remember it was such a mystery, where did the rain come from? My thought at the time was that God was crying. The Creator was crying for all the lost people on both sides. The senseless deaths for no reason. I still don’t know why we were there, or if we accomplished anything.

I am bald now, but when I was in Vietnam, I had black hair, and the Vietnamese would point to their hair and skin, and point to mine, and say, “Same, same.” I tried to explain that I was a Native American. I remember this one woman who looked at me and said her husband was in the South Vietnamese army, and she was thankful that we were there helping to support the South Vietnamese army. But, she said, “The U.S. has destroyed our land with the bombs and Agent Orange.  We had an economy, and the U.S. ruined that economy. And you turned our young girls and women into prostitutes.” Let me tell you, that was a powerful thing to hear.  It was a major turning point in my life spiritually and morally. It had a major impact on my sense of justice. I felt guilty about what I had been part of.  

Here was a group of Indigenous people, just living their lives, you know, farming, trying to make a living. Just being alive, doing what they needed to do to be happy and to make ends meet, no threat to us in this country at all. And then we invaded their country, and they fought us, and they won. I felt like I had joined the Seventh Cavalry. And I was there helping to kill those Indigenous people the same way the Seventh Cavalry killed our Indigenous people.

Because I was the only Vietnam veteran on the drum that day, I was really emotional. I started crying. I can remember seeing my teardrops fall on the head of the drum with the raindrops, and they were all dancing. They were moving up and down on the drum. They took the flag off of the statue slowly because we were going to sing it four times through, and when we got done singing, the sun came out. You couldn’t script this in a movie. I thought it was religious. There was so much meaning in that. And then each of those helicopters peeled off and moved into the west. And in the west, from one side of the sky to the other, there was a rainbow. And every one of those helicopters flew through that rainbow. It was unbelievable. There’s a lot of spirituality here.

I feel that way whenever I am at The Highground.  A lot of people feel that it is a sacred place. A lot of good things have been done at The Highground—other statues and an effigy mound have been added. Any time I’m over in that area, I’ll stop in and just walk around the trails. It’s a peaceful feeling. They have a lot of benches and even a little treehouse. It’s a place of healing for a lot of us. It’s nothing magical; I think it’s more spiritual. You feel good while you’re there, and you carry that feeling away with you for a while.

I think a place like The Highground is important because of the different traumas that veterans go through. When I’m at The Highground, I just feel peaceful.  It’s a place where we can go and find peace and healing.

Gary’s story is part of our series of stories connected to The Highground Veterans Memorial Museum. This story was produced by Carol Amour.

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