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Faculty member’s ‘Iron Mike’ has personal meaning

December 18, 2013

Dr. Jay Hansford Vest said the gift of an “Iron Mike” statuette “is something I will cherish.”

Jay Hansford VestA faculty member of UNC Pembroke Department of American Indian Studies, Dr. Vest was the keynote speaker on November 15 at the Native American Heritage Month event on Fort Bragg. His honorarium was presented by Major General John Nicholson, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division.

The original Iron Mike is a larger-than-life likeness of a World War II paratrooper with his finger on the trigger of a Thompson submachine gun. Created in 1960, it stands at a traffic circle near the 82nd headquarters.

Dr. Vest has deep personal reasons that made the gift special. “My father, Hansford Vest, was a paratrooper in World War II,” he said. “These were the nation’s first paratroopers, and it was an elite group. My father trained with the 22nd class at Fort Benning.”

That was the beginning of Hansford Vest’s service. He jumped behind enemy lines at Normandy invasion and again at Market Garden. The senior Vest also participated in the Battle of Bastogne, where the final German offensive or the war, the Battle of the “Bulge” was stopped at great cost. In all, he received six wounds during his service.

“Gen. Nicholson was very gracious, and said he did not know of my father’s service before the event,” Dr. Vest said. Vest is a member of the Monacan Indian Nation of Virginia, and the airborne is famous for incorporating Native American imagery into its fighting mythology.

Dr. Vest contributed to that legacy by discussing the American Indian story of Niskuni, the “virtuous warrior.”

“The 82nd is famous for having each other’s back in battle,” Dr. Vest said. “A virtuous warrior, Nishuni, has your back in battle, as a friend or sibling. It’s a paired relationship.”

Dr. Vest walked the soldiers through other American Indian rituals of preparing for war, fighting and returning from battle. There are also Native ceremonies to honor veterans, including the Green Corn Ceremony, the Sun Dance and powwows, he said.

“I told them,” Dr. Vest said, “that our stories (of war) live in the generations – may your sons and daughter give life to yours.”

Hansford Vest, the warrior, lives in the stories his son is currently writing. The event on Fort Bragg and the gift of an Iron Mike, which has a prominent place in Dr. Vest’s office, were meaningful to the American Indian scholar.

“On my father’s behalf, I will cherish it,” he said.