ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bobby Yazza is just one soldier who served in the Iraq war – but his story is one shared by thousands of other veterans.
He entered the military for patriotic reasons after Sept. 11, 2001, and served in Iraq. He came back alive, but with post-traumatic stress disorder, and has been struggling since then to get his life back.
From 2003 to 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, 4,491 U.S. troops died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and another 2,354 died in the Afghanistan theater of the war. Almost 32,000 troops were wounded. The Veterans Administration estimates that 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans of that war have PTSD.
“I have a lot of respect for other soldiers,” Yazza, 47, says over a cup of coffee at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, where he now works with computer security networks. “I have a lot of respect for their service and what they did for our country. As a soldier, whether it’s good or bad, we signed up for this – to be there for the United States. We have to do what we are called upon to do. In the end, I would do it again.”
Yazza, at the time a Navajo Police officer working in Window Rock and Crownpoint, signed up for the Army National Guard soon after the attack of 9/11.
“People were upset. It happened on our own grounds in the United States, so I wanted to do my part. When 9/11 happened, I went and volunteered myself,” he says. “One of my brothers was in the Marines and worked on Kirtland Air Force Base, so he encouraged me. One of my cousins went with me.”
Yazza, his brother and his cousin are part of a proud tradition of service among Native Americans. While Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, they are more than 2 percent of the military. During the years Yazza served in Iraq, the numbers of Native Americans and Alaska Natives were 2.68 percent of the total, according to the IPUMS, a research center of the University of Minnesota.
This warrior tradition of Native Americans has been strong through the military history of the United States. Travis Suazo, executive director at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, says he’s grateful for the service of Yazza and others like him: “The indigenous men and women of what is now the United States have always answered the call of duty – in defense of our aboriginal homelands, our people and our way of life. We are very thankful to all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the protection and maintenance of our beliefs and core values.”
Photographer Steven Clevenger captured Yazza in a photograph with his fellow soldier, Alex Blueeyes, when they were in Rio Rancho, before his unit, the 717th, was transported to Iraq. The photo appears in Clevenger’s 2010 book, “America’s First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq.”
“We were just playing around,” Yazza remembers of when the photo was taken. “I was kind of excited to go, but I was also thinking of what was going on over there. There was a lot of roadside fighting going on. It helped that I was going with fellow soldiers I knew.”
He arrived by bus to a base in Baghdad, a place he had imagined would be hot and sandy. “But it wasn’t that hot,” he says, explaining that he already knew about sand. “It was pretty much like home for me.”
Originally trained as a mechanic, he was deployed as military police and learned his assignment was to guard enemy prisoners. “I knew what to do,” he says. “I was pretty much on base the whole time. All I can say is that I worked with prisoners. It was all confidential.”
It was so secret that when he got back, the Veterans Administration and others who needed to know had to ask his Army supervisors to learn the specifics of what he did. His service took a toll. He was diagnosed with chronic PTSD.
“I had all this rage within me. I had questions, but nobody had any answers. So I quit asking. The next two years were a really dark place,” he says.
Although his job with the Navajo Police was waiting for him, he couldn’t tolerate the work any longer.
After he got home, co-workers advised him not to disclose the PTSD diagnosis: “I just kept it in. It all came tumbling down when I got home. I couldn’t do the job. I lost my family. It was really hard for me, but I had friends who were there when I needed them.”
Although he had gone to a medicine man in Gallup before he left, he didn’t think that would help him out of this difficult place. He explained that, while traditional ceremonies may help other Navajos, he had been raised Christian: “It just felt awkward. I didn’t think it would help.”
He worked with doctors at the VA and at a Rio Rancho clinic. At a friend’s recommendation, he decided go back to school. In 2009, when everything seemed bleak, he used his veterans benefits and enrolled in computer classes at ITT Tech.
“What brought me out of that dark place was my school. I focused all my attention on school,” he says. “When I got my associate’s degree, it dawned on me: I can do this.”
He soon landed his job at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and had a supervisor who was both a veteran and a former law enforcement officer: “He really understood my background.”
Yazza kept working hard at school and his job and finished his bachelor’s degree last year. He often sees his daughters, who are in school at the University of New Mexico and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque.
“It’s basically me trying to find myself. Everything is new,” he says. “I take it day-by-day.”