Dion Francis, like many Native Americans of his generation, comes from a family of veterans.
"Up until my generation, every man in our family who was able to had served in the military," said Francis, 59. "My mom didn't want me to go into the military. I graduated in the '70s and that was a rough time for the military."
The family lived in Guam while his father was in the Vietnam War. Both of his grandfathers served in World War II, and one uncle was killed during WWII.
A member of the Caddo Nation, Francis was born in Oklahoma. After graduating from high school, he ran track and cross country in college before deciding to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1985. He had 10 years of active duty in the Army, and five in the Reserves, starting out as a 13 Bravo artillery cannon crew member. After finishing college while in the Army, he became a field artillery officer and was asked to become an airborne ranger.
Francis said the Army changed his life, and he wouldn't trade that time for anything.
"It provided me with incredible career opportunities. It taught me leadership skills, the ability to speak in public, and provided a lot of confidence," he said. "It's an incredible feeling of accomplishment."
While he said he couldn't think of any negative aspects of serving, he said it was difficult to be away from his family for so long.
"Some of the training was really difficult, but all the training was worthwhile," said Francis.
While serving, Francis was sent to places he could have never afforded to move to. Along with places he jumped into, he was stationed in Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Fort Chaffee, Arkansas; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia; Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Hood, Texas; Saudi Arabia; Iraq; Kuwait; and Garlstedt, Hohenfels, and Reifenberg, Germany.
"I was able to explore places and experience them in ways I never could have as a civilian," said Francis. "It was nice - pretty exciting."
Francis has mixed feelings about recommending service to others, mainly because he knows what combat is like.
"I know the opportunities are there to improve life in the military, but it also has to be tempered. People sacrifice a lot in the military; sometimes they sacrifice their lives," he said. "I won't tell someone to join. If they do decide to enlist or become a commissioned officer, I back them 100 percent."
Although he didn't tell his children to enlist, three of the five did. One is in the Air Force, one in the Arkansas National Guard, and the other in Oklahoma National Guard.
"I'm very proud of them. I tell them to learn their jobs and focus. You can't stay in the military forever; it's definitely a young man's game," he said. "I encourage kids to go to college and graduate, but I don't dissuade kids who are interested in going into the military."
While a captain in the Reserves, Francis was recruited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which eventually brought him to Tahlequah.
"My last day in the Army was my first day at the FBI Academy," said Francis. "I was a special agent doing negotiations, investigating violent crimes in Indian Country, and I was a civil rights investigator."
After 10 years, Francis retired due to a medical disability caused by chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a rare disease he thinks he developed due to immunizations he got while in Kuwait.
After having difficulties dealing with the veterans hospital in Muskogee, Francis is thankful he had private insurance, and he still prefers to go to the Cherokee Nation W.W. Hastings Hospital.
"I've transferred to the VA in Fayetteville, and they're doing a good job," said Francis. "The Cherokee Nation medical center is incredible."
Francis thinks Cherokee County is a good place for veterans.
"It's not like this everywhere. Native Americans are proud of their veterans; Cherokee County is proud of veterans," he said. "It's very humbling to see all of the recognitions and remembrances they have in Tahlequah for veterans."
Francis is married to Shannon, and for more than 20 years, they have lived north of Tahlequah near Spring Creek.
Last summer, Francis became commander of the American Legion Post 135. He is a life member of Veterans of Foreign Wars.