ARLINGTON, Va. - It would be the most difficult duty she ever completed in the military but yet the most honorable and solemn act of respect she could give to her family and country.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Lisa Bryan received a call military families fear when a loved one is deployed to a combat zone. Her cousin, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Hatak-Yuka-Keya Martin "Sonny" Yearby, was killed in action May 14, 2006, while conducting combat operations in Anbar Province, Iraq.
It was Mother's Day. Two Marines in full dress delivered the shattering news to his parents, Justin and Mary Yearby. Hatak's father turned to the one person in the family who could relate as a warrior, intimately familiar with the culture of the Mvskoke (Muskogee) Creek and Choctaw tribes and their tradition of service.
"When my cousin Justin called with the unbelievable news of Hatak's death, I asked if I could go to Dover Air Force Base and bring him home," Bryan said. "As a Native American it is important to us that the body is not left alone. Having a family member there to bring him home meant a lot and was very important to me as well."
Serving as an escort is a difficult and emotional task even for a service member with no familial ties to a fallen Soldier. The cascading range of emotions began when Bryan received Sonny's personal effects and a flag from a casualty assistance officer at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation Center. The following morning, she escorted his body to Philadelphia and flew to Houston where she spent a seven-hour layover in a hot and humid airport cargo warehouse. Bryan stood in her Army Class A uniform for nearly the entire time, never leaving his side.
"I could feel Hatak's presence," she said. "I prayed with him, for him and just talked. We were close."
They departed Houston that evening and arrived in Oklahoma City just after midnight.
A garage door slowly rose at the cargo warehouse dock where Sonny would make his final journey home. The light pierced through the darkness on a crowd of more than 200 family members and friends waiting to receive their fallen warrior. Solemnly, an honor guard detail from the U.S. Marine Corps draped an American flag over Hatak's casket.
"That was when it was the hardest for me," said Bryan. "When the door was raised and I saw how many people showed up at two in the morning from Marietta and Overbrook to honor him."
Hatak was a citizen of the Choctaw Indian Nation and was an accomplished Native American dancer. Traditional dance is significant to Native Americans, culturally rooted and expressed for rituals, ceremonies, going to battle and honoring fallen warriors, she said. It was a part of Sonny's way of life that he fully embraced.
"Hatak loved to dance, to compete and let the Spirit take over," Bryan said with a grin. "He was a great kid and always made you smile and laugh."
Though it was difficult losing her young cousin, Bryan said there is still so much to be thankful for.
"Native Americans are all very grateful for sacrifices made by our military members and all the great freedoms we have in our country as a result of their service," she said. "It's always important to know your history but more importantly to remember those who have gone before you. I think we look at Memorial Day as a day of remembrance and celebration of our warriors and what they've accomplished."
Bryan is a citizen of the Mvskoke (Muskogee) Creek Indian Nation, a tribe that boasts a rich history of service to include one Medal of Honor recipient, 2nd Lt. Ernest L. Childers for his heroism in World War II. According to the Department of Defense, Native Americans have the highest number per capita serving in the military of any ethnic group. Bryan's family tradition of service is no exception.
"My Aunt Rachel served in the Women's Army Corps for the 555th Army Air Force at Love Field in Dallas, Texas, during World War II," Bryan said. "She's one of five women in my life who have been great mentors. Last November, she attended the unveiling ceremony for the Women's Veterans Memorial in Del City, Oklahoma. She is 91 and still sparky!"
Her uncle, Phillip Coon, was a decorated WWII veteran who survived the Bataan Death March and persevered through three agonizing years as a Japanese prisoner of war. He passed away in June, 2014.
Bryan is a member of the Kansas Army National Guard and is serving on active duty as a new media integrator for the Guard Strength Division at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia.
Today in the Army and Air National Guard alone, about 3,800 Native American men and women are serving, carrying on the tradition of the "way of the warrior."