Honoring Hayes

ERAU AFROTC participates in Iwo Jima Parade

February 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, a major battle during World War II that saw the United States (U.S.) Marine Corps and Navy capture the island of Iwo Jima from the Imperial Japanese Army. Most may know it from the iconic “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photograph, which depicts six U.S. Marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the battle. 

One of the Marines, Ira H. Hayes, was never comfortable with the fame that came with being a national hero and descended into alcoholism after his military service. After he tragically died of hypothermia and alcohol poisoning in 1955, he had a memorial dedicated to him in his hometown of the Sacaton, AZ, the capital of the Gila River Indian Community.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle and honor Hayes’ legacy, a parade was held in Sacaton on Saturday, Feb. 22. Members of the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (AFROTC) from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), along with Lieutenant Colonel Big Mountain, were invited to march in the parade. Another staff member from the ERAU’s AFROTC program, Staff Sergeant Michelle Anderson, also attended to support the students.

For a general overview of the event, the parade began around 9:00 a.m. and stretched from a nearby elementary school to Ira H. Hayes Memorial Park. Said parade lasted close to 2 hours, and it included groups ranging from veterans to a children’s marching band. Once the parade had concluded at the park, the hosts of the event began a series of ceremonies to honor Hayes, the flag-raising of Iwo Jima, and veterans both living and deceased. In order to make the university’s participation a reality, a great deal of planning was required on the part of the AFROTC’s Public Affairs Officer, Cadet Major (C/Maj) Miranda Esquivel, who served as the coordinator for this event. When asked about the process that went into planning this event, she had this to say: “Back in the beginning of January, Lt Col Big Mountain got me into Mr. Doug Juan, who is the acting chairman for all Native Arizona events, and was also one of the main coordinators for this parade and ceremony. I announced the event to the Wing shortly after and got a great response. While waiting for responses, Mr. Doug and I coordinated the details, such as UOD (Uniform of the Day) and overall itinerary for the day. He asked for our help in raising the Air Force Branch flag and for Lt Col Big Mountain and myself’s help in the wreath-laying, so we coordinated with the cadets to find out who would like to raise the flag. After I got the final headcount, I registered for the event and then I reserved two vans to transport everyone going!” 

The raising of the Air Force flag at the beginning of the event was handled, in part, by Brian A. Zelt, Air Force Cadet Fourth Class (C/4C). “I became one of the two raisers of the flag due to my prior experience raising flags.  As there were not any previous designated flag raisers, the task fell onto our detachment. Our group was asked if anyone knew how to raise a flag and had ever done it before; I was one of the few who had,” said Zelt.

The Air Force flag was raised alongside the flags of the other U.S. military branches, the Arizona flag, the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action flag, and two U.S. flags. Zelt would later describe this ceremony as his favorite part of the whole event, adding, “After raising the flag I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment.  I was lucky enough to stand and raise the United States Air Force Flag during the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima in the home town of Ira Hayes, one of the original flag raisers.”

The wreath-laying ceremony occurred after the flag-raising, and the wreath Big Mountain and Esquivel handled was meant to “honor all the women veterans.” Following some brief words from the host, they “moved the wreath from the front of the stage to the women veteran’s memorial just to the right of Ira Hayes Memorial.” Esquivel would go on to say that her favorite part of the event was “meeting the veterans in the parade.” She also added: “They gave us words of advice (and some friendly ‘Chair Force’ jokes) and shared stories. We also did 25 push-ups with a 75 year old marine veteran! It was great meeting them all.” 

The AFROTC students then bore witness to a firing squad’s volley to honor their fallen brethren, which preceded the playing of “Taps” by a bugle player. The ceremonies concluded soon thereafter, and the AFROTC students made their way back to the university after enjoying the local cuisine on offer.

The involvement of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in this parade and event was made possible by Doug Juan, and the squadron would like to extend their gratitude towards him. 

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