Michael Sebastian grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and after serving for more than 22 years in the U.S. military – including three tours of duty in Iraq – he was pulled back, he said, by a need to help his community.
“I thought I could repay those debts that I owed,” he said.
Sebastian, a police officer with the Spokane Tribe of Indians, was one of a number of current and former service members to speak at an event Saturday held by the American Indian Veterans Advisory Council.
Tribal members from about 10 reservations attended the event, held to honor Native American service members, at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center. Some came from as far as Montana for the ninth annual gathering, called the Veteran’s Memorial and Honoring Ceremony. Groups in attendance played drums and sang traditional Native American songs and prayers.
Sebastian said the military took him off the reservation, but he faced criticism at home for his decision to leave.
“I knew that if I stayed there, I was going down a road that I couldn’t get off,” he said.
VA spokesman Bret Bowers said that holding a gathering at the VA clinic is one thing that strengthens the community to help with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s a two-way street,” Bowers said. “They’re teaching us their culture. We’re advocating for health care and making leadership mindful of Native American customs. We’re continuously working on trust with veterans, especially Native American veterans.”
Sebastian said he is able to use his position as a policeman to better his community, but the job is full of challenges.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done,” he said.
But he looks for opportunities to plant a seed in people’s lives that could bloom into something beneficial, or prevent future disasters.
“If I can make a difference in someone’s life,” he said, “then it’s worth it.”
An earlier version of this story had incorrect details about Micahel Sebastian’s career and family.