Actors of color have fought long and hard for cinematic breakthroughs— Sidney Poitier, the first African American Oscar winner (“Lilies of the Field, ” 1963); Ben Kingsley, the first Asian—he is half-Indian—to win an Oscar (“Gandhi,” 1982); and Hallee Berry, the first African American woman to win an Oscar (“Monster’s Ball, ”2001).

Now, we have another: Wes Studi— prominent in “Dances with Wolves,” “Last of the Mohicans” and “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” —will become the first Native American granted an Honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards Ceremony this October.

Studi, 71, has appeared in more than 30 films. Observes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: “He portrays strong Native American characters with poignancy and authenticity.”
But Studi offers another distinction: He is a Vietnam veteran who served 18 months with Alpha Co., 3/39th Infantry., serving in the Cholon section of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and in the Delta area. Plus, he volunteered to serve. “I was underage so I got my parents’ permission to join,” he explained to VVA Veterans Online. After basic training at Fort Polk, and while on active reserve status at Fort Benning, he was inspired by soldiers who were returning from Vietnam.
Studi knew it would be hard to make it as a Hollywood actor—but not, perhaps, compared to his traumatic return from war. “War may be hell—but peace can be a killer, too,” he told the VVA. “It is absolutely incumbent on the nation to take care of our veterans. Interventions—be it counseling or acting or farming or anything else—need to get out ahead of the pain and tragedies.”

Fittingly, this veteran of both Vietnam and Hollywood introduced a tribute to military movies at the 90th Academy Awards…speaking partly in Native Cherokee.

Studi has indeed shown courage under fire— whether at the hands of killer enemy soldiers or Hollywood entertainment executives.

By Andrea Plate (author of the forthcoming book MADNESS: IN THE TRENCHES OF AMERICA’S TROUBLED DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Marshall Cavendish International)

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