PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Sandra McDonald of Caribou was 22 years old when she enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1981. Along with her brothers, she became part of the second generation of her immediate family to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Her father Thomas McDonald and five of his six brothers enlisted to fight in World War II and received various awards and honors for their service. One uncle, Ralph McDonald, was killed in action during the Battle of the Bulge and is now buried at the Normandy American Cemetery in France.
“My father, my Uncle James and my Uncle Andrew are buried in Bourne Veterans Cemetery in Bourne, Massachusetts. My Uncle Walter is buried in Weymouth, Massachusetts,” McDonald said.
After completing her basic training in New Jersey, McDonald transitioned into an administrative specialist position at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. She later served at an Army facility in Heidelberg, Germany, that was affiliated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
McDonald remembers having to adjust to cultural differences both large and small during her tenures in Texas and Germany.
“Even in the U.S. there are regional cultural differences that you pick up on really quickly, like saying ‘How y’all doing?’ in Texas,” McDonald said. “In Germany, I mostly knew other Americans in the Army, but we all came from different places.”
Members of Native American tribes have served in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces at five times the national average and have served in every major conflict for more than 200 years, according to the National Indian Council on Aging. They also have the highest per-capita involvement in the military than any other cultural group.
One of the most difficult challenges for any service member is being separated from family members, McDonald said. Fortunately, she was able to return to the United States and bring her two sons, who were in pre-K and kindergarten at the time, to Germany. McDonald’s sons attended local schools in Germany until she received an honorable discharge in 1987.
After living and working in Boston for several decades, McDonald returned to Aroostook County in 2013. She has since earned a business degree from the University of Maine at Presque Isle and works in administrative services for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.
McDonald is one of many Micmac community members who have been honored for their military service during Mawiomi ceremonies and on the tribe’s Veterans Honor Wall. She noted that serving their country is a tradition that goes back many generations for Micmac families.
“They’re honorable people and they’re proud of having been able to serve their country,” McDonald said. “It’s important for us to share their stories so that the younger generations will know what it was like for them to serve.”
More recently, Brandon Getchell of Perham is one of the younger members of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs to serve.
Getchell enlisted in the Army in 2009 at the age of 18 and served at many major U.S. Army bases, including Fort Knox and Fort Campbell in Kentucky, Fort Benning in Georgia and Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He completed a deployment to Afghanistan from June 2010 to April 2011.
From left (clockwise): Brandon Getchell of Perham is pictured during his tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan; at Fort Knox, a U.S. Army base in Kentucky, where he was deployed during his early years of service; at Fort Sill, a U.S. Army base in Oklahoma, during one of his years of service. Credit: Brandon Getchell
“I wasn’t sure what else I wanted to do at the time,” Getchell said, about why he joined the Army. “I know I definitely would not be the same person had I not served.”
For Getchell and many of his fellow veterans, serving in combat roles in Afghanistan became the most challenging part of their service, one that still brings about painful memories and grief.
To this day, Getchell still keeps in touch with many of his former service colleagues. Those friendships have helped him and others deal with the pain of losing close friends.
“I have lost friends [from the Army] after they took their own lives,” Getchell said. “It helps to have friends to talk to who know about some of the things we’ve been through.”
In reflecting on what it means to be a Micmac veteran, Getchell said that many in the community feel compelled to preserve an important aspect of their cultural heritage.
“For many of us there’s a sense of duty to protect our families and our country, to be like the warriors of our past,” Getchell said.