Spotlight: Albert Gray Eagle

Oklahoma Flutist and Vietnam Veteran, Albert Gray Eagle, Reflects on Art, Family History of Decorated Military Service & Post-Traumatic Stress

by Robin Brooks

There’s something about Albert Gray Eagle when you first meet him that is extraordinarily powerful, yet disarmingly subtle, sensitive, and silent. It is the quiet kind of confidence and strength that undoubtedly comes from years of experience connecting with other human beings on a deep, soulful level. As an obvious artist, one who is spiritually connected, Gray Eagle’s profound talents resonate with everyone he encounters.

“I have to reach way down into the depths of my soul…realize that there is something out there far greater than myself. It’s in every living thing that’s on this earth,” Gray Eagle said.  “We have two sets of eyes: one to see with – to see things physically – and then one to see things around you in a different manner…someone who is hurting, someone you can talk to. I’ve been gifted to be able to talk to people one-on-one…about what’s bothering them,” said Gray Eagle. “You can spot a veteran a mile away. You look into his eyes…you know where he’s been.”

Gray Eagle, a globally known teaching artist affiliated with the Oklahoma Arts Council, is a featured musical performer and workshop instructor at the upcoming Military Experience & the Arts National Symposium, scheduled for May 14-17 on the campus of Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. Gray Eagle will perform music, heavily tinged with patriotic themes and Native American storytelling roots, as well as provide instruction to military veterans and families in the traditional art of flute-making, utilizing authentic materials such as cane, reed, and clay. A Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Army, Gray Eagle is acutely aware of how the historical military experience and environment during the 1970s impacted Native American soldiers from a distinctly cultural perspective.AGE1

“As an American Indian, it was pretty rough. There were two or three of us in the entire brigade,” said Gray Eagle. “We were called up in front of everyone by a major general and, of course, he went through the spiel: ‘As members of separate nations, the United States Government would like to thank you for your service.’

The first comment I remember was from a staff sergeant in Kentucky who told me that I ‘should feel privileged that I was even allowed to serve after what the Indians had done to this country years ago!’ When they tell you something like that your self-worth goes down a lot, no matter how hard you try to be a better person. You always got this ethnic thing:  ‘chief this, chief that.’

“During that time, American Indians were more decorated than any other culture. Yet, they were probably treated the worst,” Gray Eagle said. “It was just stuff people didn’t know…stereotypes…that’s what happens when you get people together. I lived with these guys coming straight off the field. I was a small, five-foot, nine-inch, 135 pound kid, who I guess from behind, looked Vietnamese. I was attacked…choked…they just went crazy, you know? I was seventeen years old,” said Gray Eagle.

As part of the MEA symposium’s focus on diversity and the arts, Gray Eagle will open a lunch-time film screening, courtesy of Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA) and the Oklahoma Humanities Council, titled “Native Oklahoma: Native Vietnam Veterans.” A film panel discussion, including veterans profiled in the documentary, will take place immediately following the screening.

1“My family is all veterans. I had a great uncle that got three Bronze Stars during World War II (a Bronze Star with arrowhead cluster), and a Purple Heart. Of course, his PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) was so bad he spent most of his life drunk, and had car accidents that I think were probably attempted suicides, you know? But he survived then, and he never talked about it until right before he died. He was eighty-four or eighty-five years old when he died,” Gray Eagle said. “My grandfather on my mom’s side served. He had a Bronze Star…and my uncles. They were all decorated. There was a lot of service.”

Gray Eagle compares his own difficulties reintegrating into society after coming home from Vietnam with those of his elder family members. “My grandfather…he didn’t know how to communicate with anybody, as I didn’t, when I got out of the military. He got jobs where he would herd sheep up in the mountains by himself. So, all he had was a few dogs and a horse, and he stayed in a…a small camper trailer for months at a time,” Gray Eagle said.

“When I went to work, I was an office manager at this farmer’s cooperative, but I had an office in the back corner where I didn’t have to deal with crowds of people,” he said. “When I was going to get a promotion, to the manager of the whole place, I had to go talk to a board of directors, and I didn’t care for that. So, the only job that I could find where I could be alone was driving a truck. I had my own little space, minimal dealing with people. It was an ideal job for my situation. It was basically the same as my uncle and grandfather,” Gray Eagle said.

“When I got out, I just wanted to go home. I wasn’t going to admit to anything that would keep me there. It was a shameful thing to have PTSD or anything wrong with you mentally because you were going to be labeled,” Gray Eagle said. “Nowadays, you know, they sign a document: ‘sound and ready to go home.’ Of course they are going to sign the paper! They’re not going to say, ‘I have a problem.’ It all depends on the severity of what you happen to see or feel, but the biggest thing is the label of ‘they’re crazy, they’re nuts, they’re whatever.’ Everybody’s got problems. Some people just handle it better than others,” said Gray Eagle.

Gray Eagle is sentimental and respectful of his family heritage, ancestors, and the older generations. Although he didn’t understand the concept fully as a younger man, where his knee-jerk reaction was to run away from his problems rather than ask for help, he is conscious today of the positive role and major impact older veterans who’ve served in prior wars and conflicts can have on the younger generation of veterans. Gray Eagle believes they understand like no one else can. He agrees the support is mutual; it can work both ways.

“There is a trust between veterans…and older generations. I think it is important when a veteran who has been there can talk to a younger veteran, because there is going to be an automatic piece of trust as compared to talking to a young psychiatrist that just got out of school who has a certain guideline to follow in a twelve-week program. There is no trust in somebody they think has read a book or learned from a book and has no idea what they’ve been through. They can’t ever let the veteran go outside of the guidelines,” Gray Eagle said.

“The first thing you need is a support system. If you don’t have any family left because you end up driving your family, your spouse, your kids even…you drive them away…there’s another veteran there to help you, to listen to you. You are not alone in this world,” said Gray Eagle. “I think the greatest tool out there to help a veteran is another veteran.” Gray Eagle is also lucky enough to credit his niece, who works and travels with him everywhere, as well as his wife, who he gives “props to for hanging in there,” as sources of comfort and support.

“My great uncle was like my dad. He never boasted about ribbons he had. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know that he had all these acknowledgements until right before he died. He spent most of his time alone, drunk or trying to kill himself,” Gray Eagle said. “He never reached out to [the] Veteran’s Administration or [a] hospital…He didn’t know how to. It was a big taboo to label yourself…that you’ve got a problem mentally or that your heart is broken, or your soul is hurting so bad that you find it hard to get up every morning to carry on.”

“And having so many awards at a time where Indians or any minority would not have gotten any type of recognition, it just amazes me what he actually went through, what he had to live with his whole life. I know why he was alone, why he wouldn’t talk, and why the only time he showed any affection was when he was drunk. It’s so sad. He was an amazing man that I looked up to.”

“My grandfather, my uncles…coming back from Vietnam…they were messed up. I totally understand, as a veteran myself, who they were and why they were the way they were. I’ve seen so many die young because they never asked for help. That’s why we are averaging twenty-two suicides a day of veterans. That’s a lot. That’s twenty-two too many,” said Gray Eagle.

Gray Eagle received a very special gift as a child that has served him well as an adult survivor of military trauma; which included severe beatings, racial hostility, and witnessing the catastrophic circumstances surrounding the death and disabling wounding of two friends from Texas who just so happened to be brothers.“I wasn’t qualified to be there,” he said.

“I was so far down…and it was a gift given to me when I was five years old, a flute that I learned to play, that saved me. During my darkest times as a kid, I always had a place where I’d go and play it and I’d release all of this negativity…get it out. The flute has saved my life, all the way through! My art is my best survival tool. I have that and, sometimes, the company of another veteran,” said Gray Eagle. “Veterans that get into the arts at the VA, in music or pottery, they seem to do far better than anybody else. So, that’s my healing. I pretty much had to manage my own way out of ego, pride, whatever, to find my own ways of healing to survive,” said Gray Eagle. “I do have something to offer to the world, and it’s a peaceful art, a solution to all these bad feelings that I’ve held deep inside…the hurt and the heartbreak.”

Gray Eagle’s music and healing catharsis has incredibly far-reaching effects, as he is constantly sharing what he has learned with others in every part of the world.  He tells a wonderful story about making a special, lower-C-register flute for a World War II veteran from Topeka, Kansas. Although the elderly veteran is confined to a wheelchair, Gray Eagle is fascinated with how he continues to use this form of musical art to stay overjoyed and alive.

In one of the most meaningful and emotional experiences of Gray Eagle’s life, he describes how he once met two individuals at a National Veterans Creative Arts festival in Wisconsin, both on a USO tour, who helped him fulfill a life-long dream.

“I told them: ‘I would like to send some flutes to Iraq…Afghanistan…to the soldiers over there.’ Well, being on the USO tour, they told me they could make that happen. I had made two-thousand flutes. I do Sundance and ceremonies like that, and I had one of those Sundance priests smoke them off, bless them, whatever you want to say. So, they went to Afghanistan and they found these soldiers! They took the time to give these individual flutes to these soldiers…and some of the emails I got back were just awesome! It was a blessing…to be able to pass something on that was given to me and send them overseas to a combat zone, where maybe some of these guys could find some peace, too, in the middle of all the chaos.”

It was great, he says, “for two people to come into my life like that and allow me to fulfill something I had always wanted to do for someone else, and to do it and take the time to find the American Indian soldiers that were stationed there. I told them I didn’t care who got one because, culturally, they belong to everybody in the world. Everybody in history played a flute for some reason or other, so I just wanted it to be a gift… if they found someone to give them to,” Gray Eagle said.

Gray Eagle credits amazing, miraculous moments like these; working with children at camps and schools; teaching suicide prevention classes; being present for his daughter, who also suffers from military-related trauma; and being accessible to those veterans in need at the VA and beyond, with helping him wake-up every morning and continue the long and winding journey towards health and healing.

“When I get a piece of wood…and feel the life that used to be in that piece of wood…it’s like giving life to create sound. It’s like our second heart. We have a heart that pumps our blood, but then we have the heart that our soul rests in, that you can reach for deep inside…and feel like you’ve done something,” Gray Eagle said.

“We all have many resources, but we have to find the one that finds us. Because once you get into that dark place or that hole, it’s so hard to dig out. Art is about the fastest way I know of to get out. If I can be a part of that…volunteering or visiting another veteran…and share a piece of my art…that’s awesome. I’m glad that I was invited to the MEA symposium to be able to give a little piece of hope. Maybe someone will pick up what I do, pick up the flute. I love to play music. I love to do it. It’s the one thing that has saved my life over and over again, but it’s not just the art itself. It’s what happens when you’re doing the art that’s the medicine. When I put my soul into my art, it puts me in a place that’s peaceful.”

“To allow something positive to happen, people can’t do it alone. No matter how strong you think you are, you know, we were put on this earth to be there for each other…to help one another.  It doesn’t happen with one person. We have to respect everything and everyone around us. If you can help somebody, by all means, it’s your duty as a human being,” Gray Eagle said.

Additional background information on Albert Gray Eagle can be found at Registration and general information about Military Experience & the Arts’ National Symposium can be found on its homepage. Registration costs $20. Active duty service members and spouses with military I.D. cards can register free-of-charge.

As You Were, Vol. 2 Release

MEA is proud to present you with As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 2. This publication is the culmination of hundreds of hours of work on the part of writers, artists, and our volunteer editors. Its poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and artwork represent nearly every living generation of veterans and individuals whose lives have been impacted by the military. “We hope you’re intrigued, touched, and even moved. Above all, we hope you enjoy.”

As You Were Cover

Help support our mission by disseminating this wonderful collection of veterans’ works!

Review: Ellouise Schoettler’s “Arlington National Cemetery: My Forever Home”

By Roger Thompson, Stony Brook University 

See Ellouise Schoettler’s Arlington National Cemetery: My Forever Home here. Start a discussion with Roger and others who’ve viewed the performance below.

Roger Thompson

Two years ago, I visited my father-in-law at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. He had been buried in 1997, two months before I married his daughter, and since that time, neither I nor my wife had returned. For my wife, a visit was too complicated. The difficulties of family dynamics had, in his death, left her under a shadow whose boundaries she had yet to trace, and the fact that he had not made known to any of his family, even his own wife, that he had made plans to be buried alone in the military cemetery caused confusion and even anger. I did not share that family history, and though his secret decision seemed to me hurtful, it also seemed to me full of some meaning that needed to be honored, and at some point, understood. My trip to his grave was an attempt to help my wife try to tell her father’s story and choice of final resting place again, perhaps in a new way. It was also a way for me to try to, more than ten years after his death, reconnect with the person who would have been my father-in-law had cancer not claimed him in his fifties.

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Screenshot from Schoettler’s Arlington

Connection is at the heart of Ellouise Schoettler’s story-telling, and I get the sense, watching her Arlington National Cemetery: My Forever Home that her visits to the resting place of both one of her daughters and her husband at Arlington National Cemetery is more than just, as she says at the end of her performance, “remembrance” of the dead. Her performance derives from the finest traditions of story-telling, and it is about animating the lives of the dead so that the living connect with them, understand them, and recognize them as neighbors breathing life into us like the first spring air that breaks winter. That Schoettler concludes her nearly hour-long rumination on death without so much as mentioning the word “death” is testament to the fact that she’s actually more interested in life, or that, more accurately, she is interested in collapsing the line between life and death in order to make it so thin that marking out its boundaries is like trying to distinguish one brilliant white marble headstone from among all the others in their perfect rows. Step in close, you will see the firmly etched name of an individual.  Look up and cast your eyes around, and you will see only the collapsing certainty of the white rows.

Schoettler’s story-telling is complex. While it leans on a sentimentalism like that from Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon, it doesn’t rest in that place.  Instead, it complicates such sentimentality by the use of remarkable juxtaposition.  Her narrative opens with the burial of one of her children nearly fifty years ago, and that story is the force that moves her toward the burial of her husband in 2012 after more than fifty years of marriage. As her story moves onward, she punctuates the family remembrance with stories of her future “neighbors,” those who are buried next to her husband, her child, and one day her. These are reminisces of death, beautifully told, and in each case, focused not on the loss, but on the breathing, loving, and continuing lives of those left behind.  Arlington is transformed in these narratives, then, into a community that bustles with energy. It is no less lonely than any other cemetery (the image of survivors sitting next to their loved ones’ headstones repeats in her tales), but, unlike other stories of loss and loneliness, there is in Schoetller’s Arlington the certainty (not merely possibility) of reunion, connection, resolution, and perhaps even peace.

The most striking of the juxtapositions gestures toward this certainty.  Schoettler is driving into Arlington on one of her many trips to see her husband, and as she drives toward the grave, she is overrun by a mass of twelve year old children. They are on a field trip, and they roll toward her like a wave up the road. She pulls over to let them pass, and as they do, she engages one of their teachers in conversation. They are here on a field trip, having driven in from New Jersey, and after seeing the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they are making their way to lay a wreath at the grave of an alumnus of the school who had been recently killed in Afghanistan. The children, of course, are full of life, darting along, laughing, running, enjoying a warm day out and away from school, and yet, despite their clatter, they are “beautiful” to Schoettler, their sounds pressing life into the sacred space. They are also the exact opposite of the dignified procession of her husband’s burial related earlier in her narrative, and while she makes no comparison explicit on this point, it is impossible in listening to her relate the story of the field trip, not to have in one’s mind the contrasting images of the flag-draped carriage drawn by Marines down the road and the bubbling mass of children swarming up it. One image focuses on ritual and silence, the other on buzzing and blissful chaos.  Maybe more, it is also impossible for me not to hear in that story the recovered voice of her own daughter, chattering above the earth. She begins the performance with the death of her child, and as her narrative weaves its way to a conclusion, the mass of children arrive, crowding her out, pushing her to the side to make way for their almost impossible joy in summer. Her loss, then, is new life not only for herself and her family, but for her child, who lives now in her listeners, and she essentially erases the line that separates us from the dead.  We hear them as well as the children. We hear her as well as her child and husband.  We hear the story of parents, children, warriors, and civilians as they spin out from Schoettler’s tales, and we are ultimately witness to their enduring parade.