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Tribal veteran Rodney Loonsfoot: Serving is ‘in our blood’
As a young boy, Rodney Loonsfoot was watching coverage of the Vietnam War when he turned to his father and said he wanted to go fight. Both his father and grandfather had served in the U.S. military and had thus become Ogichidaag — warriors — in their native Anishinaabe Ojibwe culture.
Loonsfoot would go on to become an Ogichidaa himself. He served in the National Guard for two years before enlisting in the Marine Corps and serving from 1984 to 1993, including a stint in Somalia.
When he returned home to the tiny village of Baraga in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula, Loonsfoot would eventually serve as both a Tribal Council Member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) and a tribal Veteran Service Officer for his fellow tribal veterans.
Now 57, Loonsfoot continues in both roles, he says, because giving back to his people is part of who he is. He also serves on the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund Board of Trustees and coordinates the Baraga County Toys for Tots program. And he recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to support the KBIC’s legislative effort to get compensation for the federal government’s unlawful taking of thousands of acres of reservation land in Baraga County.
“You know, I kind have been lifted and gifted into this position to be able to serve the community in many, many ways,” Loonsfoot says. “Our clans take care of ourselves. It’s in our blood and it’s in our DNA.”
‘Doing what we’re supposed to’
In the early 1990s, Operation Restore Hope was carried out as a humanitarian mission to stabilize war-torn Somalia so food and medical supplies could be delivered to its citizens. Loonsfoot, a Marine platoon sergeant at the time, would receive a combat action ribbon for his role in the mission.
At one point, Loonsfoot and his troops were hunkering down near an airport and he ordered them to dig foxholes around the perimeter. When it was Loonsfoot’s turn, he inadvertently dug into a grave. He immediately threw the dirt back into the hole and went off to try to collect himself.
“For me being a Native American, disturbing that grave was a big issue,” he says. “This is something that has rocked me ever since. And it’s something I battle every day.”
While serving in the Marines wasn’t easy, Loonsfoot says he “had a blast.” He’s extremely proud of his service to his country and honored to identify as a veteran, just like his father and grandfather.
“There was a lot of satisfaction within our community and within our family that we're doing what we're supposed to do,” he says. “And that was defending our country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
‘They’ve earned these benefits’
Loonsfoot, who sustained a shoulder injury in the military, is a 100% service-connected disabled veteran, meaning he receives the maximum monthly disability compensation payment from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He also uses the VA for his health care.
Getting the full disability rating took years, which is why Loonsfoot tries to make it easier for younger tribal veterans to get the benefits and resources they earned for their service, whether that’s disability compensation, education or employment benefits, or emergency assistance. He says many tribal veterans continue to distrust the government, which can add another obstacle to the process.
“Part of it is being stubborn. Part of it is being proud, too,” he says. “They may feel like they don’t need the help because they’re strong. And then I would assume some people don’t want to feel like they’re a burden. But they’ve earned their benefits. Being a veteran, you've given that service. You've put your life on the line for our country.”
The good news is that more and more veterans are reaching out to ask him and other Veteran Service Officers for help.
“In our small community, the word is getting out,” Loonsfoot says. “In our own veteran society, we stand with them and we work together to take care all of our Baraga County veterans.”
Veterans of any age or era — or their dependents — may qualify for benefits and resources, such as VA health care, mental health services and education and employment assistance. The MVAA serves as the central coordinating point for Michigan veterans to get connected to their benefits. Contact us at 1-800-MICH-VET (1-800-642-4838) or visit our website at michigan.gov/mvaa.
If you're a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention 24/7/365. Call 988 and press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.