By Brady Rhoades
Actor Wes Studi, who delivered a historic and stirring tribute to veterans at the 2018 Oscars, saw a generation of veterans return from Vietnam only to be cast aside by many of their countrymen and women.
He never wants to see that again.
That’s why the Vietnam veteran, who starred in Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, and Hostiles visits military bases and attends Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) conventions.
“It’s almost intimidating because I don’t know exactly how it is for them,” he said. “I know what it was like for us… It was drummed into us to take care of yourself and take care of your buddies.”
And it’s why he urges citizens to support veterans.
“I think the thing you can do is be active politically and fix up the VA,” he said.
Back in March, Studi became the first Native American presenter at the Oscars.
“As a veteran, I am always appreciative when filmmakers bring to the screen stories of those who have served,” Studi said on stage. “Over 90 years of the Academy Awards, a number of movies with military themes have been honored at the Oscars. Let’s take a moment to pay tribute to these powerful films that shine a great spotlight on those who have fought for freedom around the world.”
Photo: BEVERLY HILLS, CA – Chief Phillip Whiteman Jr., Lynette Two Bulls, Byron Allen, Christian Bale, Carolyn Folks, Scott Cooper, Q’Orianka Kilchar, Rory Cochran and Wes Studi attends the premiere of “Hostiles” (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Audience members and viewers saw clips from famous films.
The 90th annual Academy Awards were memorable for many reasons, but the most talked-about moment might have been when Studi, who is Cherokee, concluded his address in Cherokee.
Veterans appreciated it. Native Americans appreciated it. Veterans who are Native Americans really appreciated it.
“Both groups hadn’t gotten much mention at the Oscars,” said Studi, 70. “Some people feel like they’ve been forgotten, left out of the process.”
Studi was inundated with emails and letters. Social media erupted. One woman on Twitter said, “A proud moment and true role model for our youth … a true warrior.”
Wes Studi was born in a Cherokee family in Nofire Hollow, Oklahoma, a rural area in eastern Oklahoma, where Cherokees have lived since the Trail of Tears. He is the son a housekeeper and a ranch hand. Until he attended elementary school, he spoke only Cherokee. He attended Chilocco Indian Agricultural School for high school and graduated in 1964; his vocational major was in dry cleaning.
At 17, Studi enlisted in the Oklahoma National Guard and worked through Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana.
Studi volunteered for active service and went to Vietnam with A Company of the 3rd Battalion 39th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division. He served 12 months in Vietnam.
Those 12 months changed his life.
“I discovered what being in combat is,” he said. “What sticks out most is you’re with your buddies and you’re going to take care of each other.”
He remembers the terror and violence of war, but also the natural beauty of Vietnam and the joys of friendship.
“There’s a resilient spirit in human nature,” he said. “You’re going to enjoy yourself no matter the situation.”
He also recalls that the U.S. military could not have cared less about his—or anyone else’s—ethnicity. He was a soldier.
“I was treated well,” he said. “The fact that I was Cherokee didn’t have anything to do with anything.”
Photo: ORLANDO, FL Wes Studi, Joel David Moore, Sam Worthington, Stephen Lang, James Cameron, Zoe Saldana, C. C. H. Pounder, Sigourney Weaver and Laz Alonso attends the Pandora The World Of Avatar Dedication (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)
After his discharge, he became an activist for Native American causes and tried making a living in many ways, including bull riding. In hindsight, he realizes that the war had awakened in him the need to confront fear and to feel the rush of adrenaline that comes with conquering your fears.
A friend convinced him to get involved in community theater. It didn’t take much coaxing. Theater was a good place to meet women, his friend told him. It turned out to offer even more than that.
“What I saw in community theater was you could learn your lines and do rehearsals and all of that, but finally opening night shows up and you’re in the wings and I rediscovered that huge wall of fear,” he said. “And to me, that provided excitement.”
It took him years of toil and sweat, but he broke into Hollywood with a role in The Trial of Standing Bear in 1988. His acting career had lifted from the launch-pad. His star burst brightly in the 1990s; movie-goers came to know him as a proud and fierce warrior in Dances and Mohicans.
Thirty years after making his screen debut, Studi was standing in front of 50 million-plus viewers, worldwide, at the Oscars.
He was coming off the 2017 release of Hostiles, in which he plays Chief Yellow Hawk, an aging, ailing Cheyenne warrior who—sometime in the 1890s—is escorted back to his tribal home in Montana by Capt. Joseph Blocker, played by actor Christian Bale.
Michael Ordona of Common Sense Media reviewed the movie and was impressed by one unexpected aspect of it.
“The most original thing about Hostiles is its rare depiction of PTSD in the Old West,” Ordona wrote. “Here, Bale and his lieutenant (Rory Cochrane) play soldiers who’ve been at it too long, seen too much, and done too many things they can’t really justify. When one confesses he’s got ‘the melancholia,’ it’s dismissed out of hand—just as the idea that war and a life of violence can cause injuries that can’t be seen wasn’t widely accepted until fairly recently. As Blocker, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and Rosalie share dangers and develop trust, the film’s theme of how a traumatic existence can change people—and yet the good in them might still prevail—becomes clear.”
According to the Wounded Warrior Project, about 400,000 veterans of battles in Afghanistan and Iraq live with the invisible wounds of war, including combat stress, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), depression and PTSD. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has conducted studies that show there are 22 veteran suicides a day, or about 8,000 a year.
We’ve come a long way since the Old West. But we’ve got a long way to go, Studi said. “We’ve got to find assistance for people with PTSD and other conditions,” he said.
He added that we’ve got to do more than thank veterans for their service (although that’s always appreciated). Veterans, especially those who’ve been wounded and traumatized, need above all hope, and hope is realized when they see marked improvements in their lives.
“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “Support anything that has to do with the betterment of veterans.”