“These people get this stuff better than most. They know that the choice about whether to call an action a “war” or a “police action” or a “train and assist” or God knows what else – that choice is most of all a marketing decision. Folks in this part of Oklahoma know that no matter what you call it, warriors fight and too often die – right away or over hours or weeks and months or until a suffering veteran is laid to rest decades later.”
— Charles Bloeser. In 2018 we still need our warriors, revised and updated from Veterans Day 2017 article, separately titled.
The following is excerpted from my article, “In 2018 we still need our warriors.”
The People Who Nurtured a Warrior
Oklahoma is a pretty conservative place to begin with. It was the last state in the Union to allow tattooing (again), when it ended its prohibition in 2006. Oklahoma voters have picked the GOP nominee in all but one of the last 16 or 17 trips to the wrestling mat. And in the last 4 presidential contests, the Republican ran the table.
I wrote in the Oklahoma Bar Journal in 2003 that more of those who jeopardize U.S. national security should face the death penalty (the law makes that easier now), but I still had to ask what it was about Oklahoma that led to the state in 2003 having ten times more people on death row than any other state in the U.S. Tenth Circuit.
It’s Either Right or it’s Wrong
The term “flyover country” is not just a geographic descriptor for that part of the continental U.S. that is bookended by the coasts. It’s shorthand for the people who call the place home.
Writer Matthew Wolfson equated “flyover country” with the American Midwest in a March, 2014 article in the New Republic:
Unlike many parts of the coasts, as well as the South and West where lax labor laws have attracted multinational corporations, the Midwest enjoys a degree of insulation from drastic changes. There’s still relatively little ethnic or religious diversity, there’s plenty of space to own land, prices aren’t too high, there’s not too much traffic congestion and, in an environment this familiar, people can afford to be friendly.
In a Molotov cocktail lobbed through cyberspace, The Hill contributor Mr. Duane Townsend described some of these regional attributes and the changes they brought in November 2016 derisively. In one of the less incendiary passages – I’m not kidding – he describes the region and its people this way:
A flyover state is the huge region between the coasts. As opposed to the eastern seaboard, northern post-industrial states and Pacific Ocean states, they’re overwhelmingly Republican, stanchly conservative, regressive right wing, evangelical Christian and working class, well, the loudest, most ill-informed of them are.
But politics has always had its own version of the fickle football fan. Writing in National Review in March 2016, Kevin Williamson said,
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. . . The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. . .
It’s not hard to argue that the corner of Oklahoma that gave birth to Delta Force warrior Joshua Wheeler is a land of perceived moral clarity. A land in which the answers to difficult spiritual and theological questions are certain. Certain because they’re rooted in the widespread belief and practice of an evangelical, Protestant brand of Christianity that considers “Old” and New Testaments to be the specifically chosen words of a Trinitarian God.
To many, the Protestant Bible contains words directly from the Divine that allow it to serve as an instruction manual for anything humanity might encounter. Ready guidance for a largely white population whose exposure to those who look and believe differently was in 1996 more limited than it is now. For those who take pride in claiming that this part of the Country is the “buckle of the Bible belt,” there have been and always will be “absolutes.”
Some of these are subject to change.
Despite larger portions of rigidity and legalism than is probably necessary, these remnants of an aspirational Indian Territory are home to a good and generous people who do what they can for the untethered soul who finds herself in desperate straits. More often than not, even those who believe it’s a sin for folks who are not married to each other to have sex with each other, can find compassion for a single, teenage mother with few resources and who can sure use some help.
But no place, no people can avoid suffering. And the widespread and deeply entrenched belief in an omnipotent, anthropomorphic God has too often had to serve as a deep well from which solace is drawn.
Adversity and hardship and loss can come in a lot of shapes and sizes. So whether the tragedy is the combat death of a child or parent or sibling or a visit from a malevolent tornado that scrapes from the face of the planet all evidence that an entire town ever existed, Oklahomans in this corner of the state and elsewhere have for generations viewed – or at least explained – tragedy as being “Gods will.”
The predominant faith tradition in this part of Oklahoma extends the belief in Divine determinism to the political realm. And it uses Christian scripture to support the belief that God picks leaders, both good and bad (“Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.” Romans 13:1, NLT)
God’s been busy. Oklahoma voters picked the GOP nominee in all but one of the last 16 or 17 times at bat. And in the last 4 elections, including 2016, the GOP presidential nominee won all 20 counties in this corner of Oklahoma, as well as all the other 57 counties in the state.
Work Hard. Be Tough
Everything I know about the people from these 20 counties, including MSGT Wheeler’s Sequoyah County, is that hard work was and is considered proof of good character. Resilience has no alternative. And shame has long accompanied those – especially men – who accept public assistance.
During the years that Joshua Wheeler took care of his brothers and sisters, took roofing jobs, played football, and graduated from Muldrow High School, it was Tulsa County that proved a significant magnet for diversified economic growth in the Northeastern 20. But it was the petroleum business that paid for some of Tulsa’s elegant mansions and prospered the town of Bartlesville to the north.
In 1996, the petroleum business was in the midst of global changes that Oklahoma couldn’t control. Direct flights to Houston were becoming less frequent.
Perhaps the Cherokee Nation wanted to help Josh Wheeler’s family more than it did. Maybe the tribes in this part of Oklahoma wanted to offer more in the way of social services or supplement local healthcare services or create funds to encourage and support tribal members who wanted to go to trade school or college. Maybe Native families could have struggled just a little bit less.
In June of 1996, a class action lawsuit was filed that ripped an ugly scab off a long- concealed, festering wound. Estimates said that 50,000 Native Americans in Oklahoma, including many Cherokee, had been injured.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in D.C., alleged that for more than a century federal officials systematically stole or squandered billions in royalties owed to American Indians for oil and gas extraction and other activities on lands the Dept. of the Interior held in trust for them.
It would be three presidents and four Interior secretaries before the case would settle. In approving the $3.4 billion settlement, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan said that the legitimacy of the Natives’ claims could not be questioned.
By 1996, the vast part of Northeastern Oklahoma that was rural offered a number of locally sufficient but isolated, limiting employment opportunities. A large plastics manufacturing facility here. And there, hidden off the main road, a medical-grade sterile plant that makes replacement parts for warplanes. A glass factory not far from Tulsa.
County governments and state social service agencies and public utilities employed people. Hospitals. Retailers. The VA medical center in Muskogee. Bacone College and Northeastern State University are among the educational institutions that hired folks. So did law enforcement. And tribal governments. Tribal-run casinos would improve the lives of many Native Americans, but at that time the tribes and the State of Oklahoma were still mud-wrestling over what kinds of gaming would be allowed.
Interstate highways vivisect the northeastern 20. I – 44 cuts a diagonal through Tulsa northeasterly to the far corner where Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas meet up. Interstate 40 slices horizontally out of Oklahoma City, ultimately cutting through three of the 1996 – assigned counties before entering MSGT Wheeler’s Sequoyah County, then exiting at Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Of course, Oklahoma has long thrown in a turnpike here and there for good measure.
Like in much of the rest of the country, interstate highways proved good for multi-state and international commerce. But the sacrifice to be made for that benefit were the collective souls of smaller communities that once prospered from networks of state and county roads. The same freeways that made it harder for the children of these counties to find work at home made for a much quicker, easier trip away from their families and the communities they had known as they went in search of work in cities thousands of miles away. Often on the coasts.
You’ve Always Got Your Kin
Flyover Country like the old “Indian Territory” never has and likely never will match the myriad of things to do and see and learn and earn in global cities like New York and London, Tokyo and Sydney. In places like Roland and Muldrow, Oklahoma, going to “the city” can easily mean Little Rock or Oklahoma City or Tulsa. Or, for the more adventurous and aggressive drivers, the Dallas/Ft.Worth metroplex.
But close to home, events such as Vinita’s “World’s Biggest Calf Fry Festival,” Fourth of July events in Sallisaw, or a Friday night high school football game almost anywhere, take on a worth greater than the sum of their parts.
The people in this part of Oklahoma, the people special operator Wheeler came from, usually don’t get it when those of us who are third-culture kids tell them they have it so great. You see, people like Josh Wheeler already have what we’ve always wanted: a sense of rootedness, a sense of place, the confidence that we belong to family and community who will always be there for us.
It’s true that county courthouse dockets in the Northeastern 20 feature many of the same criminal charges you see in the bigger cities: domestic violence, drunk driving, shoplifting, child endangerment, theft, sexual assault, the occasional murder, and so on. Families sometimes mix it up, too.
There’s no question that agricultural communities like those in the Northeast 20 have also suffered the outsized destruction from methamphetamine and the scourge of opioids. In June, Oklahoma became the fourth state in the nation to sue opioid manufacturers.
Treatment resources for drug and alcohol addiction can be hard to find anywhere. But it’s even harder when you come from a part of the state with smaller, widely dispersed communities, limited ability to invest in community services, and few ways to get from here to there if you don’t have a vehicle, can’t keep the one you have running, or lost your license along the path to addiction.
My work that 1996 campaign season was about politics, not about practicing law. But if what I’ve encountered in courthouses in similar rural communities in Oklahoma and Tennessee is a guide, then family will likely be there for you if you get in trouble. At least eventually.
And unlike Tulsa or Oklahoma City, let alone New York and Chicago and L.A., sometimes the prosecutor and the defense lawyer can huddle for a minute after church or during half-time at Friday night’s game, or in a hall at the courthouse and haggle for justice.
At first blush, the process can look a lot like the negotiating that’s been done through millenia in any one of the numberless local souqs that dot the ancient lands where Delta operator Josh Wheeler made an exchange with multi-generational impact: offering his life for the lives of scores of parents and children and siblings who, it turns out, might not be that different from his own.
It’s an Honor to Serve
Master Sergeant Wheeler enlisted in the U.S. Army in May of 1995. And he stayed for nearly 20 years, even as an increasingly threatening international security environment created more jobs with higher pay for special operators who start successful businesses or go to work as private contractors for the myriad of governments, corporations, and individuals who need and can pay well for such specialized services.
“Josh” Wheeler was not only a proud American. He was proud of his Cherokee heritage. And all of his service, from his first days in Army Infantry to a Special Forces warrior in “Delta Force,” is part of a proud tradition among Native Americans.
Writing in Huff Post in May 2015, the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, summarized that tradition. “American Indians serve in their country’s armed forces in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group, and they have served with distinction in every major conflict for over 200 years.”
According to a November 2015 post on the tribe’s website, the “Cherokee Nation estimates there are more than 4,000 Cherokee veterans.” Two of those warriors were from towns not far from Roland and Muldrow, OK. And they had done the kind of deeds that we should always tell people about. The kinds of deeds that earn the term “hero,” no matter how unwelcome that label may be to those who wear it.
Billy Bob Walkabout was from up the road in Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee Nation. Like Wheeler, Walkabout was an Airborne Ranger. He’d served in Company F, 58th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. His valor in combat in Vietnam earned him “five Silver Stars (incl. one upgrade to Distinguished Service Cross), ten Bronze Star Medals, five with Valor device, one Army Commendation Medal (including one valor device and two oak leaf clusters), and six Purple Hearts.”
Seventeen minutes to the west of Muldrow is Sallisaw, the hometown of another Cherokee warrior, Jack Cleveland Montgomery. Lt. Montgomery is among 29 Native Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the award was first established during the American Civil War. It’s the “highest and most prestigious personal military decoration that may be awarded to recognize U.S. military service members who distinguished themselves by acts of valor.”
It was Lt. Montgomery’s service in Italy during World War II that earned him the accolade. The lengthy official citation that was given with the medal explains in great detail exactly how Lt. Montgomery single-handedly did all of this:
“His fearless, aggressive, and intrepid actions that morning, accounted for a total of 11 enemy dead, 32 prisoners, and an unknown number of wounded.”
Lt. Montgomery returned to “Indian Territory” after the war. He worked for the VA out of Muskogee and died at age 84, in 2002.
There’s something else about the people Josh Wheeler came from. Native-American or not, they honored then and, I trust, honor now those who have served in uniform.
In small town Northeast Oklahoma, they applaud and wave the stars-n-stripes when veterans march, or ride by in open-top cars in local parades. They may defer to them in line at the Piggly Wiggly. And they elect those they trust to watch out for those who watched out for us.
There’s another thing. If, by chance, the planets are seriously out of alignment, the folks around here “honor” veterans by charging them with the all-important task of judging the best severed and deep fried calf testicles.
These people get this stuff better than most. They know that the choice about whether to call an action a “war” or a “police action” or a “train and assist” or God knows what else – that choice is most of all a marketing decision. Folks in this part of Oklahoma know that no matter what you call it, warriors fight and too often die – right away or over hours or weeks and months or until a suffering veteran is laid to rest decades later.
These counties also tend to do a pretty good job of supporting veterans organizations. In fact, Tulsa’s American Legion Post 1 was established in 1919 and is considered the nation’s oldest continuously operating post in the country.
The 1996 election season followed deadly violence against civilians and service members. Some of it at home. Some of it abroad. All of it making world news. All of it delivered by the media into the homes and workplaces and schools and churches of Northeastern Oklahoma. So maybe, just maybe in the months leading up the 1996 election season, everyone appreciated our veterans a little more than usual.
Lock ‘em Up
A brief word about Crime and Punishment in MSGT Wheeler’s corner of Oklahoma. Unless someone’s personal experiences allow her to look at criminal justice issues differently from everyone around her, it’s easy to forget that there’s more than one side to a story. More than one side to human beings.
My years prosecuting and defending criminal defendants, as well as spending a lot of time visiting with clients in various county jails and in state and federal prisons here and there give me some ideas about where Joshua Wheeler might come down on criminal justice issues. But I can’t say for sure.
For the ancestors of the area’s current residents – family whose stories get passed down from one generation to the next – living in Indian Territory meant living with little, if any, meaningful law enforcement. And the law officers they did have kept getting killed. The National Park Service reports that from 1875 – 1896, 65 Deputy U.S. Marshals were killed in the line of duty in “Indian Territory.”
The vacuum left Deputy U.S. Marshal and High Sheriff of the Cherokee Nation Sam Sixkiller, a broad range of interesting work. His “main problems were the whiskey bootleggers, cattle thieves, murders, rapists, timber thieves, land squatters, train robbers, card sharks, and prostitutes servicing the railroad towns.”
The foregoing is excerpted from “In 2018 we still need our warriors.”