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Monday, May 26

Arlington ceremony honors Indian soldier killed in Iraq

By Billy House | The Arizona Republic

WASHINGTON - More than 400 people turned out on Memorial Day to salute Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, many of them bringing gifts, songs they'd written, and other tributes to the fallen soldier's family.

The tributes came as a Pentagon official for the first time confirmed that Piestewa fought back courageously as her supply unit was ambushed in southern Iraq March 23.

``She drew her weapon and fought, and did it with courage and honor,'' said Shirley A. Martinez, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for Equal Opportunity, speaking at a ceremony Monday at Arlington National Cemetery.

Earlier in the day, President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush honored the Hopi Indian soldier, welcoming Piestewa's parents, two small children and other family members to a White House breakfast with the families of other slain soldiers.

Piestewa, a divorced mother from Tuba City, Ariz., was one of nine soldiers killed in the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Unit near Nasiriyah, Iraq. She was the only woman killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and is believed to be the only Indian woman ever killed in combat for the U.S. armed services.

``The president was pleased to welcome the Piestewa family to the White House on the important day honoring our nation's soldiers and fallen heroes,'' said White House spokesman Taylor Gross.

And Piestewa's family was clearly touched by the day's events, which placed Piestewa at the center of ceremonies unveiling a new exhibit honoring Native American servicewomen.

That exhibit, at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington, includes one of Piestewa's uniforms and tells her story, along with that of five other women.

``I would like to say how very grateful and thankful we are to Mrs. Bush for having invited us to the White House,'' said Priscilla Piestewa.

She added that the family was thrilled that ``the president introduce himself to us as a family.''

Lori's brother, Adam Piestewa, 24, said the family was ``very honored and proud to be part of this special Memorial Day celebration.''

At the unveiling of the servicewomen's exhibit, representatives of tribes from Oregon, Michigan, Florida and South Dakota delivered gifts to the family that included a flute, blankets, tribal resolutions, letters from students, and eagle feathers - a highly valued symbolic gift in Indian cultures.

There also were songs dedicated to Piestewa, including one titled ``Snowfall,'' a reference to the snow that fell in Tuba City the day it was confirmed Piestewa had died. Hopi tradition holds that when a person with a good heart dies, he or she returns to the reservation in the form of moisture as a blessing.

``She will be remembered in the annals of Indian history, for the rest of time,'' said Jay Hill, a Seneca-Ojibway who was master of ceremonies at the unveiling.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the Women's Memorial Foundation, said the exhibit had been planned for some time, but that with Piestewa's death, ``we knew we needed to preserve her memory for the American public.''

Hopi Tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor Jr., speaking to the crowd, noted that some studies show Native Americans enlist in the armed services at higher per capita rates than any other ethnic group -and that many of them are women.

Piestewa's father, Terry Piestewa, served in Vietnam, and her grandfather in World War II.

Among those attending the exhibit's unveiling were Michelle Bowman, 32 of Scottsdale, and her mother Carol Buckles, 51, of Chandler, both members of the Gila River Women's Veterans group.

The two women traveled to the nation's capital for the Memorial Day events, said Bowman, "just because we felt she (Piestewa) gave the ultimate sacrifice for her country and her family, and we needed to pay homage to her.''

By ceremony's end, dozens of people, some in tears, were lined up to hug family members. A surprise birthday cake was presented to Piestewa's son, Brandon, who turned 5 Monday.

Later events took the Piestewas outdoors to the servicewomen memorial's reflecting pool, where Brandon and his sister, Carla, 3, helped other family members poignantly toss in rose petals symbolic of those who have died defending their country.

Rescued prisoner of war Jessica Lynch, Piestewa's friend and roommate, was also a member of the 507th, and was captured in the ambush. Lynch was in the same truck that Piestewa was driving when the unit was attacked.

Noting that the family had visited Jessica on Saturday, Adam Piestewa said that she ``holds a special place in the hearts of the Piestewa family.''