From Code Talkers to COVID Talkers: Arizona National Guard Soldiers Carry on Navajo Military Legacy

By Tech. Sgt. Michael Matkin

The people of the Navajo Nation have a distinct history of honorable service in the U.S. Armed Forces. Many people know of the notable actions of the world-renowned Navajo Code Talkers, who used their indigenous language to develop an unbreakable code that helped the Allies achieve victory during World War II.

Today, this tradition of people of Navajo descent serving in the U.S. military, and utilizing their indigenous language while serving, continues in the Arizona National Guard.

In Chinle, located in the Navajo Nation, three Arizona National Guard members of Navajo descent are using their indigenous language to help in the local fight against the COVID-19 pandemic at an alternate care site. According to statistics from the Navajo Department of Health, the Navajo Nation has suffered the highest per-capita infection rate in the U.S.

“I was on the first mission here, March 29, to set up this facility,” said Pvt. Ryan Manuelito, an infantryman with the Arizona National Guard’s 1-158th Infantry Battalion. “I appreciate being able to come back and help my people, the Diné People.”

Diné is how the Navajo people refer to themselves. It means “The People,” or “Children of the Holy People,” in the Navajo language.

Manuelito, along with two other Arizona National Guard members of Navajo descent, are assisting public health services by translating critical information about the medical needs of the COVID-19 patients to medical professionals charged with their care.

“As the first patient entered the alternate care site, the need for a Navajo translator was quickly realized,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Grace Ogeson, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Chinle Task Force. “Although a mission tasking order was put out requesting Navajo speakers, the soldiers who responded had requested - and wanted - to work in the Navajo community.”

Photo credit DoD/Tech. Sgt. Michael Matkin

Spc. Paige Curtiss speaks to a COVID-19 patient at an alternate care facility on the Navajo Nation on June 2, 2020.

According to the public health services personnel on the Navajo Nation, the Navajo translators have significantly improved patient care. These National Guard members of Navajo descent communicate what patients need in terms of hygiene, food preferences and details of symptoms for treatment.

Spc. Lynnrae Acothley, a combat medic with the Arizona National Guard’s 996th Area Support Medical Company, said she trains to work in a field trauma setting. But since this mission is similar to a hospital setting, she interacts with patients in a different way.

“I was able to help an elderly woman who was brought in and only spoke Navajo,” Acothley said. “I could see that she felt relieved when she saw me and recognized my ability to communicate with her. It just reminded me of my grandparents, and I feel like I’m taking care of somebody’s grandma, and it makes me feel good.”

Spc. Paige Curtiss, a food service specialist with the Arizona National Guard’s 253rd Engineer Battalion, said the patients feel as though the service members are family, too. In Navajo culture, she explained, it is respectful to say your name, who your parents and great grandparents are, and where your clan is from.

“There’s this intermix of, ‘Okay, maybe this person is my niece in some kind of way,’ or, ‘You’re my family member,’” Curtiss said. “That makes a familial connection, so the patients are more willing to be helpful with anything you ask them, and they are more comfortable.”

The patients, health care workers and community are grateful for the National Guard’s support during this pandemic.

“It’s not just the patients who feel more comfortable with the Arizona National Guard here helping,” said Manuelito, who is from the Chinle area. “The local community sees the National Guard helping, and it makes them feel safer.”

Curtiss and Acothley agreed they are more effective because they are part of the community and they know the community members.

“They are super grateful that we are here and so am I,” Acothley said. “Every military training class that I went to and sat through, all the training I’ve done, and all you do just being a service member – it’s these moments that make it worth it.”

This story originally appeared on nationalguard.mil. It has been edited for USO.org.

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