FORT WASHAKIE — Military veterans carry a lot of scars, said Scott Ratliff, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe who served in Vietnam, and there’s no magical balm to fix them.
But in recent days, Ratliff has been walking the red path that meanders through a new veterans memorial in Fort Washakie, he told a crowd Thursday during the memorial’s heavily attended opening ceremony.
And it’s helped.
“It really is healing,” Ratliff said, his voice breaking. “I found some of that [magic]. So I want to thank all those who made this happen. It’s worth the energy.”
More than 300 people attended the dedication ceremony, held at the Frank B. Wise Business Plaza, where the memorial was recently erected on a patch of land near Highway 287.
Participants paid solemn tribute to veterans — both those in attendance and those held in memories — with drumming, flag ceremonies, a rifle salute and speeches. They also celebrated the culmination of a project that’s been in the works for years.
The origins date back to 2008, when the Wind River Development Fund and members of American Legion Post #81 joined forces to build the business plaza — named after Wise, a veteran who donated the land.
“They had been looking for a home for their Legion for some years,” said Jennifer Ford, event and communications coordinator for the Path of Honor memorial dedication. “At the same time the Wind River Development Fund was looking to revitalize the area.”
Once the business center was built, Lyle Wadda of Post #81 mounted a new effort to create a memorial on the site. Wadda and organizers raised roughly $300,000 to build the memorial, Ford said.
It has long been held that Native Americans serve in the military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group.
“So there is a strong, long history of veteran service in most of these communities, and what [memorial organizers] wanted to do was create a tangible, permanent space where that can be celebrated,” Ford said.
More than 1,000 Wind River Indian Reservation service members and their families submitted names dating from before World War I through the present for publication in a website associated with the memorial.
Designed by Wyoming artist Jon Cox, the memorial features four large stones representing different eras of service. Portraits of veterans have been etched onto the stones, along with quotes. The stones’ orientation aligns with traditional seasons and symbolism. When looked at from a certain angle, the stones create a buffalo. A red path winds through them; red symbolizes courage and commitment in many Native American cultures.
The Path of Honor is the first Native American veterans memorial in Wyoming, though on Thursday honor was paid to any and all who have served. Tribal leaders, Gov. Mark Gordon and several veterans spoke.
John St. Clair, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council and a Vietnam veteran, detailed several Native war heroes’ achievements.
“Major General Lee Gilstrap, who trained 2,000 Natives for World War I, stated — and I’m quoting, these are not my own words: ‘The Indian is the best damn soldier in the Army,’” he said.
Commander of American Legion Post #96 Felicia Antelope said it felt “like a dream” to see the memorial realized. “It’s really nice to see something that is there, it’s physical, and you can look at it, you can touch it. And you look at the names and you can remember who served.”
John Wadda, the vice commander of American Legion Post #81, reminded the audience of what service can cost.
“The thing I really want to stress to the veterans here is, you know, wherever you served, whether it was combat or peacetime, or wherever you were stationed, just always remember you left part of yourself there,” Wadda said. “You thought you came back in one piece, but you didn’t.
“Just remember veterans, you gotta honor yourself, pat yourself on the back, remember if you’re feeling kind of down, this memorial’s over here,” Wadda said. “That’s what it’s there for, for you to go over and walk through it. Look at it, sit down and think.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.