Skip to main content
Ideas and Solutions

On Veterans Day, Honoring Culture Through Service

Brett Chappell of TFA’s Military Veterans Initiative and Robert Cook of TFA’s Native Alliance Initiative reflect on the importance of service—from the military to the classroom—in the Native community.

August 31, 2016

The TFA Editorial Team

Today, we honor countless veterans who have bravely served our country, and celebrate and honor the Native community during Native Heritage Month. We recently spoke with Robert Cook, Senior Managing Director of Teach For America’s Native Alliance Initiative, and TFA’s Military Veterans Initiative Recruitment Manager, Brett Chappell, to reflect on the importance of service—from the military to the classroom—in the Native community.

Q: Robert, you have shared the impact your father’s experiences in the military have had on your life, and, ultimately, how it encouraged you to serve your country through education. Can you share more about the importance of service in the Native community?

Robert Cook: The heroic service of Native veterans hits close to home for me. My dad enlisted during World War II and would later volunteer to join an elite fighting unit called Merrill’s Marauders. Both of my older brothers volunteered and served in the Vietnam War. I looked up to my dad and brothers as my heroes and mentors, but due to physical limitations, I could not serve in the military.

Since the days of Christopher Columbus, American Indian tribes have fought to defend their traditional homelands, and they have endured poverty, racism, and efforts to erase their traditional cultures.

Robert Cook's father fought in World War II as one of Merrill's Marauders.

Despite these injustices, Native communities are resilient in the face of historical and present-day injustices. In fact, many American Indian men and women have served in all branches of the military, and honorably defended their homelands and the United States in conflicts and wars, including World Wars I and II. In fact, the Native population in the U.S. tends to be around 1 percent, but the Native veterans population makes up about 1.6 percent of the armed forces. 

During World Wars I and II, hundreds of American Indians joined the United States armed forces, and at the request of military officials, used words from their traditional tribal languages to develop secret battle communications that the U.S.’s enemies never successfully deciphered.

Countless American Indian men and women have reached the highest ranks of military service and bravely sacrificed their lives in service to this country; they can leverage that experience and commitment to service in classrooms.

Q: Brett, after serving in the Navy, you made the decision to continue service through education. What inspired you to teach and how were you able to leverage your experiences and leadership skills in the classroom?

Brett Chappell: I enlisted in the Navy a couple of days after we attacked Iraq. I wasn’t looking for a job I just wanted to fight for my country; I couldn’t sit on the sidelines, shrug my shoulders, and expect someone else to carry the load, especially when no one in my family had ever served. I showed up at a recruiter’s office, swore in, and arrived at boot camp screened for BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training. I graduated and was young, anxious and ready to fight.

When my enlistment was up, the big fight was over, and I was motivated to go chase the dollar, some titles, and a corner office; it didn’t take long before I got all that stuff. The private sector was interesting for a few minutes, but in the end, it just wasn’t inspiring or impactful in my opinion, and I didn’t want to go down being average and ordinary.

Brett couldn't "sit on the sidelines," so he became a Navy SEAL.

What I began to realize over time was that I wanted to continue to fight for my country, I wanted to be someone special again, and I wanted to continue to serve. So I made a dramatic career and lifestyle change and enlisted my time, focus and passion into what I consider the front lines to end one of the biggest social injustices in our country, educational inequity. I joined Teach For America.

I do not believe the zip code someone is born in should determine their life outcomes and the battle to end this inequity is real. This is a fight that has high stakes, and again, I felt compelled to raise my hand and answer the question, “If not me, then who?”

Q: Brett and Robert, can you share a little about the impact you’ve seen teachers from diverse backgrounds and experiences—like identifying as Native or military experience—have in the classroom?

Brett: What I found after entering a low-income, high-needs classroom was that my experiences in the military gave me some unique advantages and set me up for success. Teaching is leading, and leading has everything to do with setting and exceeding high expectations. The characteristics that are instilled in the military—attention to detail, organization, perseverance, backward mission planning, team over “me” attitude, and the ability to work in diverse environments under challenging circumstances—all position military veterans for success as teachers when meeting and exceeding high expectations in the classroom.

Military veterans also have a strong sense of compassion and humility; these two qualities are often forged through adversity and teamwork. These two qualities often give "MilVets" a unique ability to connect with their students and communities in ways that are genuine and oftentimes profound on both sides; teaching in the corps definitely changed me forever.

Robert: As an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and as a teacher sharing the same racial, economic and cultural background as my students, I built lifelong relationships and trust in the communities where I lived and taught. As an educator, I tapped into the inherent leadership, strength, and commitment that my father and brothers exhibited to ensure I was a role model and advocate for my students. I always encouraged my students to think above and beyond high school and develop goals for college, careers and community investment. 

* * *

Q: What is your advice to individuals who are considering teaching as a career and are interested in applying to Teach For America’s 2016 teaching corps?

Robert: The impact a teacher can have on the lives, options and opportunities of students can be game-changing. Our tribal nations and communities are deeply committed to ensuring students are affirmed in their tribal/cultural identity and to rebuilding our tribal nations. Be invested in your students, be a part of the community, and be a strong advocate for education. 

Brett's call to service continued as a 2012 Phoenix corps member.

Brett: In 1961, John F. Kennedy made the connection between education and national security. It was the first time a leader had made this connection. He said: "Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.”

My advice is this, if you want to be someone special, if you find yourself asking the question, “If not me, then who?”, and if you have been looking for a way to make a transformational impact, join Teach For America on the frontlines of this extraordinary adventure. Our country must get this right and we need committed and talented individuals from diverse communities, cultures, and experiences to help ensure all students achieve.

Learn more about Teach For America’s partnerships with military veterans and Native communities.

Sign up to receive articles like this in your inbox!

Thanks for signing up!