Debra Kay Mooney, a recently retired Sgt. 1st class with the Oklahoma National Guard and a member of the Choctaw Nation, reflects on her 23-year career—how the Guard and her heritage have shaped her life in ways she couldn’t have imagined.

In 2004, during a particularly tense period of Operation Iraqi Freedom II, an extraordinary event occurred at Al-Taqaddum Air Base near Fallujah, Iraq: a traditional Native American powwow. How and why such a ceremony took place in the middle of a combat zone is largely owing to the determination of one woman: Debra Kay Mooney, a member of the Choctaw Nation and Oklahoma National Guardsman.

Al-Taqaddum Air Base lies about a dozen miles west of Fallujah, where in early 2004, four private security employees were slain, their bodies hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River. In November of that year, U.S., British, and Iraqi soldiers began a major offensive to take back Fallujah from Iraqi insurgents. The urban warfare that ensued, known as the Second Battle of Fallujah, would be the deadliest of the Iraq war.

It is amid this turmoil that Mooney and a group of collaborators staged the powwow, a ceremony involving dancing, singing, games, and other cultural practices. “It seemed like a crazy idea,” said Mooney. But, if they could pull it off, it might improve the ebbing morale among the soldiers, and encourage more cohesiveness in the unit.

A tradition comes alive

It would take a lot of thinking, doing, and cooperating during stolen moments of time to make it work.  The committees came first, to organize how they’d create the drums, crafts, stick ball game, and other physical components. “We made all of the ceremonial items from discarded materials,” said Mooney. “Anything unusable to the Army was fair game. We made the drum from a discarded barrel, cut down, then stretched over with canvas and fashioned with a wooden base.”

While the decision to recreate the essential components of a powwow was the most fun, Mooney said identifying any practice or actions that might offend one tribe or another was the most crucial. Her unit had members from several different tribes, each with its own cultural practices. There could be no unified ceremony without these agreements.

Despite a spirit of cooperation, the powwow almost failed. Mooney and her team were given three weeks to prepare but only on their own scant downtime. If all the pieces weren’t in place by then her superiors would call it off.

While on mission, Mooney was a combat engineer with the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, working as a carpenter and mason building structures within the air base, as well as providing maintenance and security. She and the others in her unit moved around a lot, making the planning for the event even more tricky.

“We didn’t have a whole lot of downtime,” she said. “One part of our team would do our mission, another member would work on the powwow. Each one of us had to be dedicated in order for this to be successful.”

Shortly before the deadline, it somehow came together.

On the day of the ceremony, Mooney said she was amazed at the transformation that took place in the faces of the participants. “I saw soldiers turn into civilians with the beat of a drum. They were hooting and hollering and just enjoying the moment. The combat hardness in their faces was gone. It really did my heart good to see that.”

Mooney said it also brought the whole unit closer together through their determination to make it happen, and the education it provided. Non-Native Americans learned about the etiquette of the powwow, how to dance in the circle, and were exposed to the different traditions of the various tribes in their unit.

“I look back now and see the powwow as a symbol of the inclusiveness of the Guard,” she said. “We were different but united. I think that’s relevant for the Guard today. There’s always a way to unite behind similarities and not focus on differences. I was very blessed to be involved.”

The powwow took place in September 2004, a few weeks before the fierce campaign to retake Fallujah began.

Several items from the powwow, including the dress she wore (see images) and the drum they built, are now part of the collection at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

“When I was a soldier …”

 Mooney starts a lot of her stories this way. Since her retirement in 2015, she views much of life through the prism of her 23 years in the Oklahoma Army National Guard and her Choctaw Tribal heritage.

From an early age, Mooney knew she wanted to serve. She tried to join the Marines right after high school but a heart surgery when she was 14 prevented her from passing the medical exam. So, she went to college, and after graduating, she signed up for the National Guard.

During her time in the Guard, she deployed twice during Operation Iraqi Freedom, once in 2004 and again in 2008. During the last five years of her career she trained Guardsmen for combat in a pre-mobilization training program. She communicated with units on the ground overseas and ran exercises simulating combat environments. “It was hard but satisfying work knowing I was helping to physically and mentally prepare troops for the rigors of combat,” she said.With the benefit of some hindsight, Mooney said joining the Guard was absolutely the right move for her, but it wasn’t without personal challenge.

Her first experience during annual training was not a good one. She felt isolated and was often left to herself when others buddied up. Fortunately, she had good advisors who recognized she presented two obstacles for folks who might hold prejudices—“I’m a woman and recognizable as a Native American.” They told her she just needed to get involved, and they introduced her to the Guard’s equal opportunity program,  which she would remain involved in for the rest of her career. If a problem such as sexual harassment came up in her unit, she would address it using her EO title instead of her rank. “It had a weighty effect,” she said.

Still, Mooney has actively cultivated a thick skin throughout her life and career, based on her mother’s adamant advice: “She taught me never to use the term ‘discriminated against.’ I never allowed myself to think that way. I believe we’re products of the communities we grow up in. I’m from Oklahoma. We have a lot of Native Americans. I wasn’t treated differently there. So I wasn’t going to allow anyone to make me feel differently anywhere else.”

Seeking and finding support

 As a member of the Choctaw Nation, Mooney said she is thankful to be part of a tribe with a deep history of military service. The Choctaw are the original “Code Talkers.” Before Navajo tribe members made this method of secret communication famous in WWII, 19 members of the Choctaw Nation in WWI helped transmit tactical messages back and forth in a language the enemy couldn’t decipher. They are credited with helping the American Expeditionary Forces win several key battles in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, during the final large German push of the war.

Today, many members of the Choctaw Nation serve in the National Guard and on active duty. The tribe supports their well-being in numerous ways. Mooney has benefited from that support on a number of occasions—she struggles with PTSD, anxiety, and physical ailments from incidents while on duty. At one point, she was unable to get medical care through the VA because she had just come off orders when she was injured, and the tribe stepped up to help, at nearly no cost to her.

From providing parking spaces for vets at tribal facilities, to the big Veterans Day event they hold each year at Tvshka Homma, OK, the Choctaw Capitol, the Choctaw Nation routinely sends a strong message that they support their vets.

“Whatever they are aware of to do, they will do,” she said. “I have not seen them back away from any obstacle that a veteran has.”

Like other deployed tribe members, she also received care packages from the nation while she was overseas. And when she returned home from Iraq in 2005, a tribe representative knocked on her door to provide her with information about support they offered and to make a personal connection with her.

Activities like these led the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to be named a recipient of the prestigious Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award in 2008. Among the reasons cited: the nation’s compliance with USERRA, despite being exempt as a sovereign nation; its commitment to providing full pay and benefits for its Guard and Reserve members while performing their military service; its Veterans Advocacy program; its support for deployed Service members and their families; and numerous other forms of support.

In addition to tribal support, Mooney said she was among the early waves of returning Service members introduced to a reintegration event developed for the Reserve Component. When Mooney came home in 2008 from her final deployment to Iraq, she was told she needed to travel to Norman, OK for an event organized by the newly formed Yellow Ribbon Reintegration program sponsored by the DoD. At first, she and her peers were not enthused to go, having just returned from deployment. At the event, Mooney recalled learning about financial resources, skills for coping with PTSD, how to obtain legal assistance, and help with family issues. All well and good, but it didn’t sink in for her at the time.

It was in the months after that she began to realize its value. Not only did she take advantage of financial resources she received at the event, it also helped her not to feel isolated:

“It opened up communication between help and the one that needed help. It gave more options. The fact that you go again and again, it gave you a base. It helped me feel connected,” she said.

Her experience with YRRP was just one among many during her career in the Guard that speaks to its spirit of inclusiveness and camaraderie, a spirit that is bolstered by the support of her Choctaw Nation, and symbolized by her own organization of the powwow in 2004.

Making legacies

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Today, Mooney is often called upon to consult and reflect on her military service and Native American heritage. She serves on the advisory committee for the National Native American Veterans Memorial, to be built on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. She also recently took part in a reflection on Native Americans’ role in WWI during a WWI Centennial event in Kansas City recognizing the U.S. entry into the war.

“I’m humbled to play this role, and I’m proud of my Choctaw heritage,” she said. “It’s my spiritual and family touchstone. I’m equally proud of my National Guard service, where I found my true strength and courage. Along with my faith in the Lord, those are the things that have shaped me—my service and my heritage.”

There was a time when saying ‘I’m in the National Guard’ was met with judgment.  “We used to be seen as weekend warriors with no real purpose,” said Mooney. “All that changed after 9/11. We’re proud of who we are and how we’ve served this country.”

“We still give all,” she said.