U.S. Army Institute for Religious Leadership Total Force Integrator, Sgt. Maj. Tina Saunders is Navajo with 31 years of service in the Army. She is religious affairs specialist noncommissioned officer. November is Native American Heritage month. (Photo by Mel Slater)

Religious leadership sergeant major shares Native American heritage

By Mel Slater, Institute for Religious Leadership

November is Native American Heritage Month.

This is a special time for the U.S. Army Institute for Religious Leadership and Sgt. Maj. Tina Saunders, a total force integrator.

Saunders is Navajo.

“Yá’át’ééh (Greetings) my name is Sgt. Maj. Tina Saunders and I am Navajo from the Utah part of our reservation. The Navajo reservation is the largest reservation in the U.S., and it covers the states of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico,” Saunders said. “In the Navajo tribe we are born of multiple clans, my clans that I am born to are Táchii'nii (Red Running into the Water People) on my mother’s side and Áshiihi (Salt People) on my dad’s side. Ákót’éego dine asdzáán nishłį́ means (In this way, I am a Navajo woman).”

Saunders has served in the Army for 31 years. She shares her story.

“I was born in Monticello, Utah in 1969 to the late Herbert Joe and Anna (aka: Emma) R. Joe. I was raised on the reservation at MacCracken Mesa for most of my childhood and lived in Colorado as well as my father worked in the uranium mines, and we would travel back and forth but always maintained permanent residents on the reservation.

Navajo is my first spoken language as that is the only language most of my elders spoke or speak. I learned English when I started attending headstart as English was required before starting kindergarten. My parents instilled similar values to the Army as we were growing up: the importance of faith, family, loyalty, courage, etc.

While in high school, my older brother showed me a brochure for the Marine Corps that caught my attention. The Marine Corps has always been part of Navajo culture as the famous Code Talkers helped defeat the Japanese in the Pacific Theater during World War II by developing and using an unbreakable code to send messages throughout the campaign.

I picked up a passion for running while getting in shape to join the Marines as I was a little over the weight limit to attend their basic training. While training to go to boot camp I decided to go in a different direction and joined the Army Reserve. I joined the reserves in September of 1991 as it was always in me to serve my country like my ancestors before me. In 2003 I was selected to the active guard/reserve program where I moved up the ranks to sergeant major.

“The military has given me exposure to many things, different cultures, travel to different countries, developing long lasting friendships, completing my master’s degree to name a few. My husband and I met while I was stationed in Germany and we have been married for seventeen years. I have been deployed to Afghanistan where I learned that a lot of food they ate was similar to what we ate on the reservation which brought into perspective how similar we are as a people even though we are thousands of miles apart.”

Although she has held a number specialties in the Army including graves registration and petroleum specialist, she says the 56M, religious affairs specialist has been the most rewarding.

“I’m out there with Soldiers, Families and civilians. And for me it’s God and country,” Saunders said. My faith is what got me into the religious affairs specialist NCO. You bring some closure to Soldiers and you’re there mentally and spiritually and I think that is what’s rewarding to me.”

Her contribution to USA-IRL and the Chaplain Corps are immeasurable.

“Sgt. Maj. Saunders is the subject matter expert on all things 56M, religious affairs specialist,” said total force integrator, Chap. (Lt. Col.) Stephen Yarber. “She provides guidance to all 56M classes at the USA-IRL as well as all 56M students. She is the definition of what it means to be a professional.”

The Defense Department honors the storied legacy of American Indians and Alaska Natives who, from the Revolutionary War to present-day missions around the world, contribute greatly to national defense.

“USA-IRL and I appreciate the service and contributions of Sgt. Maj. Saunders and the many Native Americans and Alaska Natives who have served this nation. We are proud to be her teammates,” said Commandant, Chap. (Col.) James Palmer, Jr.

Saunders also shows her appreciation for the opportunity to serve.

“Ahéhee’ (Thank you),” Saunders said.