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Navajo code alive in Iraq

9 May 2004 | Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

Since the age of 12, Cpl. Kayelee Yazzie knew she wanted to be a communicator in the Marine Corps.

Yazzie, a Navajo, comes from a long line of military family members including her father who was an airman in Vietnam, her 77-year-old grandfather who served with the Army in Germany during World War II, and his stepbrother who was a Marine code talker in Japan during the same war.

"Code talkers are highly respected people in my tribe," the 20-year-old said. "I knew I wanted to follow in their footsteps and carry on their legacy."

Growing up on a reservation in Tohathci, nestled in the northwest corner of New Mexico, Yazzie learned her native language and to respect her elders.

"The only time I spoke English was when I was at school," she explained. "At home, my family spoke only Navajo. The elders of my tribe taught us the old ways of our heritage.
They wanted us to carry on the Navajo traditions."

As a child, she talked with her grandfather about his life before and during his military service.

"He told me he... was walking home from school one day and a military recruiter pulled up with a bus and told a bunch of them to get on," she said. "My grandfather went to his home, packed up what he could, then left for the Army."

His stepbrother was recruited shortly after and went to the Marine Corps as a code talker.

Navajo "wind talkers" used their complex language to develop an unbreakable code which proved invaluable during World War II.

"My grandfather went to Germany and didn't know where his stepbrother was sent," Yazzie added. "All anyone really knows is that he went to Japan and just never came home."

Her grandfather does not usually talk about his stepbrother because he doesn't remember too much about him. The two men were drafted in their late teens, almost 60 years ago.

Her grandfather believes his stepbrother was probably taken prisoner, tortured and killed. Still, the circumstances behind his disappearance remain a mystery.

Hearing the stories he would recount to her, Yazzie developed an interest in Marine Corps communications. She even learned to understand "the code."

She said it wasn't difficult because "it's just the Navajo language."

Code talkers used Navajo words and translated them to English. The first letter of the English words corresponded to letters making up the intended messages.

According to Navy historical files, one way to say the word "Navy" in Navajo code would be "tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di-glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)."

Some Navajo words could be used to represent certain military terms. "Dah-he-tih-hi," hummingbird, was "fighter plane."

"The code talkers helped the U.S. beat the Japanese because no one could crack the code," Yazzi said. "It's very hard for someone who doesn't speak Navajo to learn because it's a difficult language."

In May 2001, she joined the Marines to become a communicator. She is currently deployed to Iraq for the second time.

Many of her coworkers are impressed with Yazzie's heritage.

"I think it's so interesting that she is carrying on the tradition of the code talkers," said Gunnery Sgt. Matt L. Hoffer, technical control chief. "They had such a huge impact in the Pacific during World War II, and now Corporal Yazzie is representing a new generation of Navajos in the Marine Corps."

Others are interested in understanding more about the Navajos.

"Some people want me to teach them the Navajo language," Yazzie said. "I'm proud of who I am and it makes me feel really good when others want to know more about where I come from."