By Lethbridge Herald on November 8, 2018.
Sgt. Preston Crow Chief buffs his combat boots to a dull shine in preparation for an inspection of the 20th Independent Field Battery at the Vimy Ridge Armoury.
His combat fatigues are neat and presentable, his short, brushy hair regulation-length. Crow Chief, an Afghanistan War veteran and 13-year member of the local reserve corps, muses on his own time in the military and what it means to be an aboriginal soldier from a proud military legacy.
Crow Chief’s great grandfather, Joseph Crow Chief, was one of 10 Blood Reserve men to enlist and serve in the Canadian Army overseas during the First World War. Joseph’s brother, who went by the name of Nicholas King, was another.
But it was Joseph’s story Crow Chief often heard as a child, and which eventually sank into his own consciousness as he grew older and decided to join the army reserve at the age of 16.
“He never had kids before he left for the war,” remembers Crow Chief. “He was a bachelor. He went to Indian residential schools, and he went there with his brothers. There were four of them in the residential schools. One of them, I believe they said, died there.
“My great grandpa must have been 18 or 19 years old when the First World War was becoming a thing.
“He enlisted with his two brothers. There was one that went by the name of Bumblebee, and his second brother went by the name Nicholas King, and then of course himself. Bumblebee didn’t want to go overseas because he didn’t want to cut his braids, and he didn’t want to speak English. Nicholas and Joseph went overseas to fight.”
Bumblebee gave his younger brothers some advice as he dropped them off with the horse and wagon at the train station to begin their long journey toward the Western Front, says Crow Chief.
“Bumblebee told his brothers, ‘The Kaisers (Germans) like to stop the war for lunch. You boys can’t do that. There is no stopping the war for lunch.’ The funny thing was, Joseph’s big job during the war was delivering water to British officers on the front lines so they could have hot water for their tea. He would run the water out and back all the time.”
Joseph was wounded several times in the war, and went on to experience a lifetime of health problems after his exposure to mustard gas. He didn’t let it stop him from living out his life, says Crow Chief.
“After the war he worked for farmers,” recalls Crow Chief, “and all he did was work and show his sons how to work. My dad says, there was one day they were collecting bales and loading up on the hay wagon and that old guy was just picking them up and throwing them way up there easy. That was how fit Joseph was even later in his life, and he would do that all day and want to get done quick because you only have so much daylight to work in a day.”
While never experiencing any physical wounds during his own time of war like Joseph did, Crow Chief nevertheless knows what it is like to come home with injuries that don’t ever really heal properly, injuries you have to learn to live with.
“I suffer from PTSD, and I used to see things,” Crow Chief admits. “I used to see rocks stacked up on the road and I used to think they were IEDs. I used to really freak out when there were boxes on the side of the road or a garbage bag — my mind would be revving 110 per cent. I really preferred not to drive when I came back. I started isolating myself, and being in my head wishing I could walk everywhere.”
Crow Chief served as an infantry transport driver in Afghanistan in 2009-10, spending most of his days outside the wire on roads which were often booby-trapped by the enemy. Military training helped him stay alive, but it was parting words from his grandfather, Joseph’s son, which helped Crow Chief cope with the mental strain of the mission.
“When times did get hard while I was in Afghanistan,” remembers Crow Chief, “my grandpa said just call on Joseph. Just talk to him and pretend he is standing right there. He is going to be watching you. That did help me a lot.”
While his great grandfather’s presence helped him during his time overseas, Crow Chief credits the Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Calgary and his local Kainai Elders for helping him at home. He admits he still finds it odd to be thought of and called a veteran, though.
“It took me a long time to let that settle in,” he says. “I grew up watching the veterans always bringing the flags in at the powwow, and I didn’t think of myself as a veteran. I guess I am OK with it now; it’s just another banner to pick up.”
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