Lloyd Oliver perfected his sniper skills shooting prairie dogs as a boy on the reservation. But it was his native tongue as a Navajo that made him a war hero.
Now 87, and long deaf from years of exposure to enemy fire, Oliver helped develop the secret, encrypted language that was used by the Navajo code talkers, an elite unit of the U.S. Marines who helped defeat the Japanese in World War II.
Only about 50 of the 400 men are still alive today, mostly living on the Navajo Nation reservation that straddles Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Their average age is 84.
In red Garrison caps and gold-colored uniform shirts dotted with medals and bolo ties of indigenous turquoise, 13 of them reunited this week on what may be their last mission: to raise $50 million for a museum dedicated to preserving their language and their legacy.
Some feisty and others in wheelchairs, the veterans are participating for the first time today in the nation's largest Veterans Day Parade, in New York City.
Oliver, now frail but retaining his sense of humor, joined the U.S. Marines at 19 because "my girlfriend was mad, I had to get away."
But he would soon be part of the "original 29" who developed the code that proved to be the only one ever unbreakable by enemy forces.
"He started from scratch every day," said Stephen Lloyd Oliver, 27, who's his grandfather's translator. "The code was inspired by the people in his life."
They transmitted messages verbally by radio, one Navajo speaker to another, in what was the most successful in military history.
After the war, the code talkers returned to a country that did not recognize Navajos' voting rights -- that would happen decades later -- and were not allowed to speak about their covert wartime contributions.
Native Americans were recognized as citizens in 1924, but faced legal barriers. The vote was secured in 1948 in Arizona, but it wasn't until the Voting Rights Act of 1970 that most Native Americans in that state could vote.
The secret mission of the code talkers was classified until 1968 out of fears that the code might compromise national security long after the war.
"He accepted it out of respect for his country," said Oliver's grandson, who works at the reservation casino. "He was very humble. I am proud of what he did for this country."
Oliver returned to work as a silversmith after the war and kept his word.
Stephen Lloyd Oliver only learned about his grandfather's heroism in 2001, when President George W. Bush publicly recognized the code talkers.
Because these veterans served in the front lines, always in the line of fire, Congress approved a special gold medal.
Keith Little, who today runs a family ranch on the reservation in Crystal, N.M., signed up for the Marines at 17 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
"I wanted to retaliate for what the Japanese did," said Little, now 85, and president of the Navajo code talkers association, who says he left the reservation on foot until he reached paved roads and hitchhiked to the nearest recruiting station.
"When I went into the Marines, I couldn't vote," he said. "I had no rights at all on the federal reservation."
But he, like others, felt a duty to "protect the mother homeland."