Navajo Airman’s Indigenous Story & Fulfilling a Legacy

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Frances Dupris, Senior Enlisted Leader, Cryptologic Services Group
  • North American Aerospace Defense Command

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Rochelle James, grew up in a small community on Navajo Nation, also known as Navajoland, a Native American reservation in Arizona.

“It was not always easy and perfect. We did not always have access to everything we do now, such as water and electricity,” said James.

Not many people can relate to the stress of having to travel long distances for necessities and care. James explained the nearest hospital and grocery store were nearly an hour away. She and many other Navajo Nation members overcame these adversities, making them stronger.

“The Navajo Nation is home to some of the fastest and strongest runners,” said James. “There are no gyms full of treadmills, or nice running tracks, or equipment to train with. There are only dirt roads, hills, rocky side trails and unknown paths. I am not the fastest nor strongest runner, but I strongly believe those rocky dirt roads made it easier to adjust to running and other physical activities at Basic Military Training.”

James is proud of her family’s history of military service. Her great grandfather, U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Albert Smith, was a former Navajo Code Talker during World War II.

“He left all he knew on the Reservation and reported to the Pacific Islands at 15 years old to do a job only a few would be able to. He transmitted classified messages in code using the Navajo language,” James explained. “I cannot imagine that responsibility. I am proud of his and the many other Code Talkers’ role in the successful victory in Iwo Jima. I am here today because of him.”

James explains that she enlisted into the USAF to challenge herself as a Navajo woman, and proudly honor her great grandfather’s bravery and legacy of selflessly serving as he executed a dangerous duty.

“My great grandfather paved a path for myself and Native Americans in the military today,” said James.

The Indigenous Nations Equality Team for Department of the Air Force Barrier Analysis Working Group’s stood up March 2021. INET’s initiative is to help remove barriers impacting Native Americans and Alaska Native Airmen and Guardians.

James shared her thoughts on why diversity in the military and INET’s initiatives are important:

Everyone in her BMT flight said she was the first Native American they ever met. In fact, one of the females in James’ flight told her she thought Natives didn’t exist anymore.

James believes statements like this in 2022 speak volumes to how far Department of the Air Force Native American’s have come, and the importance of INET’s outreach and progression towards removing barriers and initiatives.

 “We are still here.”