CHINLE, Ariz. – The Navajo Nation has a distinct history of honorable service in the U.S. Armed Forces, most notably the actions of the world-renowned Navajo Code Talkers.
Their language helped the Allies achieve victory during World War II. Today, this tradition continues in the Arizona National Guard.
Three Arizona Citizen-Soldiers use their first language at an alternate care site in Chinle to advance the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic on Navajo Nation. According to statistics from the Navajo Department of Health, they have suffered the highest per-capita infection rate in the United States.
“I was on the first mission here, March 29, to set up this facility,” said Pvt. Ryan Manuelito, an infantryman with the Arizona National Guard’s 1-158th Infantry Battalion. “I appreciate being able to come back and help my people, the Diné People.”
These Arizona National Guard members are assisting public health services by translating critical information about the medical needs of the COVID-19 patients to medical professionals charged with their care.
“As the first patient entered the alternate care site, the need for a Navajo translator was quickly realized,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Grace Ogeson, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Chinle Task Force. “Although a mission tasking order was put out requesting Navajo speakers, the Soldiers who responded had requested, and wanted, to work in the Navajo community.”
According to the public health services personnel on the Nation, the Navajo translators have significantly improved patient care. These Navajo Citizen-Soldiers communicate what patients need in terms of hygiene, food preferences, and details of symptoms for treatment.
Spc. Lynnrae Acothley, a combat medic with the Arizona National Guard’s 996th Area Support Medical Company, said she trains to work in a field trauma setting. But since this mission is similar to a hospital setting, she interacts with patients in a different way.
“I was able to help an elderly woman who was brought in and only spoke Navajo,” said Acothley. “I could see that she felt relieved when she saw me and recognized my ability to communicate with her. It just reminded me of my grandparents, and I feel like I’m taking care of somebody’s grandma, and it makes me feel good.”
Spc. Paige Curtiss, a food service specialist with the Arizona National Guard’s 253rd Engineer Battalion, said the patients feel as though the service members are family, too. In Navajo culture, she explained, it is respectful to say your name, who your parents and great grandparents are, and where your clan is from.
“There’s this intermix of, ‘OK, maybe this person is my niece in some kind of way,’ or, ‘You’re my family member,’” said Curtiss. “That makes a familial connection, so the patients are more willing to be helpful with anything you ask them, and they are more comfortable.”
The patients, health care workers and community are grateful for the Guard's support during this pandemic.
“It’s not just the patients who feel more comfortable with the Arizona National Guard here helping,” said Manuelito, who is from the Chinle area. “The local community sees the National Guard helping, and it makes them feel safer.”
Curtiss and Acothley agreed they are more effective because they are part of the community and they know the community members.
“They are super grateful that we are here and so am I,” said Acothley. “Every military training class that I went to and sat through, all the training I’ve done, and all you do just being a service member – it’s these moments that make it worth it.”
Diné is how the Navajo people refer to themselves. It means “The People,” or “Children of the Holy People.”