SPALDING -- Under the shade of cottonwood and locust trees rustling in a stiff breeze, the men of Company A, an airborne Army Special Forces unit fresh from Iraq, formed a circle with veterans from the Nez Perce Tribe.

Wilfred Scott, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee,

an elder and veteran himself, welcomed the 20 young men to Nez Perce Country and described the coming pipe ceremony.

"I do not recall us doing one like this for any group or any unit," said Scott. "Many of us get pretty emotional doing these ceremonies."

At that the tribal flag song was played and the Special Forces troops stood straight and rigid as the stars and stripes, tribal flags, an Army flag and the company banner were brought in.

The Nez Perce veterans befriended the unit and honored it with a pipe ceremony prior to the war. They also sent black scarves embroidered with the word Nimiipuu (Nez Perce for "The People") and the Alpha Company insignia to the men, who wore them in Iraq.

The troops were also welcomed to the ceremony by Anthony Johnson, chairman of the tribe and a veteran of the Gulf War. He spoke of his return from war 10 years ago and how welcome the sight of trees and green grass was after months in the desert.

"We want to say welcome home and job well done," said Johnson. "We are very glad that in a traditional way we didn't have to do an empty-saddle ceremony in honor of a fallen comrade."

Company commander Maj. Gregory Allen, dressed in desert fatigues, accepted the welcome and thanked the veterans for their prayers and blessing.

"This is very overwhelming to me," he said. "I'm not a very emotional person."

Allen introduced each of his men and described what their job was during the war.

"It is pretty incredible all these guys are back alive and no one was injured. We can thank God for that and we can thank all of our training."

Spiritual leader Horace Axtell then blessed the ceremony and he and others prepared pipes that circled the group of about 40 men three times. Each man and a few women raised the pipe to the sky and then to their lips to draw in the smoke.

"Now you become part of the Nimiipuu people and we welcome you," Axtell said.

Following the smoking, gifts were exchanged before an eagle feather was passed around the circle. Each person who held the feather stood and told of their service and some of their experiences.

Sgt. Gregory Walker, who had formed a friendship through e-mails with Scott, said the tradition of Special Forces was born from the courage and tactics of Indian warriors in the 1700s.

"Your scarves and your prayers with them went over with us and brought us back safe today."

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Barker may be contacted at ebarker@ lmtribune.com

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