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Okla. General Proud of Her Cherokee, Choctaw Heritage

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 25, 2003 – When LaRita Aragon was growing up in Dale, Okla. population about 300 -- in the '50s, '60s and '70s, being an American Indian wasn't in vogue.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Oklahoma Air National Guard Brig. Gen. LaRita Aragon climbed the ladder of success from airman basic to general officer. Of Cherokee and Choctaw Indian Nation descent, she joined the Air Guard in 1979. Photo courtesy Oklahoma Air National Guard
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image)

But Aragon, formerly LaRita Bly, was never discriminated against because her "Indianness" wasn't conspicuous. "My great grandparents chose not to be identified through four generations of marriages with Irish, Russian, German and British," said Aragon, a brigadier general in the Oklahoma Air National Guard. "I came out a green-eyed, dark-haired, skinny little girl. I'm no longer dark-haired, and certainly not skinny.

"I was taught respect for elders, leaders and our land, but not for my Native (American) heritage," said the assistant adjutant general of the Oklahoma Air National Guard and Air National Guard assistant to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for financial management in Washington.

"When I entered the military 26 years ago, I made a conscious decision to declare my native heritage," said Aragon, the first woman American Indian general in the military and the first woman commander in the Oklahoma Air National Guard. "I, along with my sister and three aunts, have researched our genealogy to reach the branches of our family tree."

What they found was that they are of Cherokee and Choctaw descent. Her father, Rhoper Bly, is part Choctaw. Born in Pueblo, Colo., he retired after 38 years in the maintenance department at Tinker Air Force Base. Her Cherokee mother, Jimmie Bly, a native of Guinn, Ala., retired from Tinker as an aircraft inspector. Her sister, Connie Jenkins, is a computer programmer at Tinker.

"My great-great-grandparents refused to give up their property to place themselves on the roles as American Indians," Aragon noted. "Therefore, I don't have a Bureau of Indian Affairs card, nor have I been able to acquire one."

Aragon said the military's attitude toward Indians and women proved much different from societal attitudes and behaviors. She said being a woman has never kept her from being promoted in the military, and her heritage was viewed as a plus. "I believe that the military is one of the greatest leveling fields for equality that there is," the general said.

At the age of 30, Aragon enlisted in the Oklahoma Air National Guard on Sept. 9, 1979. She became a draftsman apprentice with the 219th Engineering Installation Squadron in Oklahoma City. At the time, she had a bachelor's degree in education and master's in guidance and counseling, but didn't apply for a commission.

But there was a method to her madness. "In the Air National Guard, the vast majority of commissioned positions are attained by proving yourself in an enlisted position," the general explained.

In setting the stage for her climb up the rungs of success, Aragon became a workaholic, taking every mission she could get from the engineering units. She also volunteered to serve on boards and for jobs no one else wanted to do.

"I built a reputation for getting the job done, and I had some great supporters in my squadron and in the wing," she said. "They gave me chances to train and be visible in mission assignments."

Meantime, she interviewed for every officer position that came open in her unit. "After two guys failed at the commissioning academy, I got a shot at a slot," Aragon said. "I'd applied three times, but did not give up my hope of being an officer."

She received her commission through the Academy of Military Science in Knoxville, Tenn., in October 1981. She returned to the 219th as an administrative officer. In February 1989, Brig. Gen. Aragon became the first female commander in the Oklahoma Air National Guard when she assumed command of the 137th Services Flight at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base.

Why would an award-winning schoolteacher enlist in the Guard? "I was a single mother and my children's father wasn't paying child support," Aragon explained. "I couldn't get by financially without an additional income."

A church elder, who was a guardsman, suggested that she sign up. "He assured me they would let me work when I was not teaching, and I could build a second career," Aragon said. "I fell in love with the people and the mission and found a whole new look at life. I immediately gained about 1,000 big brothers, who looked after my children and my welfare. They were there through every upturn and down and became an extended family I could lean on."

In civilian life, Aragon taught kindergarten through seventh grade. "My favorite was fifth grade because I enjoyed their development and sense of humor at that age," she said. "I started in an all-black school in 1970, before Oklahoma City began integration of the school district. I'd never been exposed to children of color, and they taught me as much about their culture as I could have ever taught them math, reading, writing or social studies. I became a part of their community -- lived, ate and played in their environment."

She said she became a principal in 1984 and was named "Principal of the Year" in 1988 and 1992. "I thrived in a multicultural school that was turned from a high-risk, low-achieving elementary into a center for community involvement," Aragon noted. "It was recognized for academic achievement and parent involvement." She was selected as the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce Excellent Educator of the Year in 1990.

Recognized as the Oklahoma Woman Veteran of the Year in 1998 by the War Veterans Commission of Oklahoma, Aragon said she was honored for her role in taking 100 military women to the opening ceremonies of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va. She was also instrumental in raising more than $18,000 for the Women's Memorial in the name of the women who had served in the armed forces from Oklahoma.

"We were the only state to take a military group to march in the opening ceremonies," she noted. "We were escorted in the grand opening ceremony by our adjutant general, the assistant adjutant general and the chief of staff of the Oklahoma Air National Guard." Aragon also convinced State Sens. Enoch Kelly Haney and Kathleen Wilcoxson to participate in the memorial dedication.

The general said she never considered herself a "woman" soldier or airman, but became a "poster child" that young female soldiers and airman came to for advice and support. Retired and senior women veterans came to her when they needed help getting attention to issues, she said.

She was never a Girl Scout, but in 1998, she was named the Oklahoma's Red Lands Council Girl Scouts Woman of the Year for being a role model and her support of the scouting as a teacher and principal. "I felt it was a great training ground for young girls," Aragon said. "It gave them opportunities for structured activities and gave them pride in belonging to an organized group. I believe young girls need to experience the pride and discipline of serving others and learning teamwork."

Aragon served as the mortuary officer for the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building bombing recovery 1995. "I helped make identification of bodies and notification to next of kin," she said. "I was involved with notification to the next of kin of the children killed in the day care center there."

Calling her husband, Greg, a "keeper," she said he's her best friend, closest confidant and strongest supporter. She said when they married on April 11, 1982, "He brought his four beautiful children into my life, and accepted my two little girls who call him their father. He allows me the flexibility to follow my dreams and goals.

"I love to golf, but I guess my passion is to spend time with my grandchildren," Aragon said. "They range in age from 4 months to 18 years. When I married Greg, I inherited our four older children, and now we enjoy 7 wonderful grandchildren. We have two that live here in Oklahoma, two in New Mexico, two in Nevada, and one in Hawaii."

On her military success, Aragon said, "I was in the right place and the right time, and had great bosses that let me open some doors to 'diversity' in the Oklahoma Military Department."

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