A Tradition of Service: Colonel Wayne Don
On November 11, 2020, the National Museum of the American Indian will honor Native American servicemen and women and their families by dedicating the National Native American Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Here, Col. Wayne Don, deputy chief of staff for operations of the Alaska Army National Guard, talks about his experiences as an Alaska Native in the U.S. military and the honor of helping to build the memorial.
Thank you for serving on the Advisory Committee to the National Native American Veterans Memorial . Please introduce yourself and, if you can, give us your Native name and its translation.
My name is Wayne Don, and I'm a member of the Cupig (Nunivak Island) and Yupik (Quinhagak) tribes. I grew up in Mekoryuk, a village on Nunivak Island, 500 miles west of Anchorage in the Bering Sea. My Yupik name is Ciquuyaq (pronounced chii quu yaaq); I was given the Yupik name of my grandfather on my mother’s side, John Crow.
Why did you choose to serve in the armed forces?
I chose to serve in the military because I have always been interested in it. It also helped motivate me to finish college and allowed me to earn an officer's commission.
Have other members of your family served?
Both of my grandfathers served in the Alaska Territorial Guard during World War II, and I have numerous relatives who served in the Alaska Army National Guard and various branches of the military. My nephew, Aaron Don, serves in the Air Force.
Is the warrior culture strong in your family or tribes?
It wouldn't say the warrior culture, but the idea that you do what you are called on to do—I come from that tradition. The Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG) was created after the Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands during World War II, when the U.S. Army realized it had no idea what was happening on the western coast. The officer who oganized the ATG traveled to virtually every village in southwest and northwest Alaska, and almost every able-bodied man volunteered—men as old as 60 or 70, boys as young as 12.
Mekoryuk Natives were recruited to patrol the east side of Nunivak Island. Alaska was still a territory, and the people did not have full rights as citizens, but they all volunteered, not knowing the cost or benefit of it.
Did your Native background play any part in your decision to join the military?
Not necessarily. I didn't know of my grandfathers' service until much later, when I was reading military history.
Why did you enter your specific branch of the military?
I chose the Army because there was an Army ROTC program on campus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I was attending college.
What years did you serve, and where did you serve?
I entered service in 1994 and am currently serving as an active guard and reserve soldier in the Alaska Army National Guard.
What was the highest rank you received?
I'm currently at the rank of colonel.
Were there other Natives who served with you? Were you treated differently in the service because you are Native American?
I was generally the only Native soldier in the units I served in in the Regular Army. Here in the Alaska Guard there are a number of Alaska Native soldiers serving from various tribal groups throughout the state.
I haven't been treated any differently for being a Native soldier.
Can you share a story or incident that sticks out the most in your mind about your service?
During my first deployment to Bosnia, in December 1995, I found myself as a young 23-year-old 2nd lieutenant in charge of an infantry platoon getting ready to enter a hazardous fire zone. I was scared, unsure of myself, and I doubted my own personal and professional readiness to lead men in a dangerous environment. I overcame my fear and doubts and found my confidence and determination to lead men in difficult circumstances. Those lessons stayed with me in my deployment to Afghanistan in 2009 and the various challenges I have faced in my personal and professional life.
Are you a member of any veterans' groups?
Yes, I'm a member of the Alaska Native Veterans Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Would you recommend joining the service to your family members or others of your community?
Absolutely. I would encourage anyone to consider military service. I received a world-class experience from the military, and a great civilian education from several great institutions as a result of my military service. I’ve been fortunate to have those opportunities. I'm also grateful to be able to bring that training back to my community. There are highs and lows, but the military has treated me well and allowed me to serve my community and my state.
What do you think of the upcoming Native American Veterans Memorial?
I’m excited about the upcoming memorial. With the all-volunteer service, there are a lot of people who have not served or understand what it means to serve. I guess I want people to recognize how often Native people have volunteered. From Alaska to the East Coast, through all the wars, Native people have always volunteered.
I'm also tremendously honored to be a part of the Advisory Committee for the memorial and look forward to seeing the groundbreaking in 2019 and dedication in 2020.
After taking part in 35 community consultations to learn how Native veterans and their families envision the memorial, and overseeing an open, international competition to the select a design concept for the memorial, the Advisory Committee and the museum announced the memorial fundraising campaign this Veterans Day. To date Native nations, corporations and foundations, and individual donors have pledged more than $6 million toward a total goal of $15 million—$8 million for construction of the memorial, $4 million for programming and outreach, and $3 million to create an endowment for its long-term maintenance. You can follow news of the memorial at AmericanIndian.si.edu/NNAVM.