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SAIGE Military Meritorious Service Award winner fosters resilience, culture

U.S. Air Force Maj. Tanya Mooneyham, 81st Medical Group Intensive Care Unit element leader, poses for a photo inside Keesler Medical Center on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, July 15, 2019. Mooneyham received the 2019 Society of American Indian Government Employees Military Meritorious Service Award for her dedicated work in her community while supporting the Defense Department mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Suzie Plotnikov)

U.S. Air Force Maj. Tanya Mooneyham, 81st Medical Group Intensive Care Unit element leader, poses for a photo inside Keesler Medical Center on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, July 15, 2019. Mooneyham received the 2019 Society of American Indian Government Employees Military Meritorious Service Award for her dedicated work in her community while supporting the Defense Department mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Suzie Plotnikov)

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KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

Maj. Tanya Mooneyham, 81st Medical Group Intensive Care Unit element leader, belongs to a group that comprises only two percent of the U.S. population and an even smaller percentage in the military.

Mooneyham is proud of her Native American heritage which taught her resilience and enabled her to win the 2019 Society of American Indian Government Employees Military Meritorious Service Award for her dedicated work in her community as well as supporting the Defense Department mission.

“I was very surprised,” said Mooneyham. “I didn’t see myself getting an award for what I was doing.”

Maj. Roger West, 81st MDG ICU flight commander, thought the opposite. When West received an email informing him of the award, he instantly thought of Mooneyham and encouraged her to submit her package.

“I thought she was a great candidate,” said West. “I know she has done a lot of work back home with her family.”

Mooneyham’s family lives on a reservation in New Mexico where her grandmother has a big property and for the last four years, Mooneyham and her family have visited two weeks every summer to help the community.

“We call it Reservation Festival,” said Mooneyham. “It’s open to anybody who wants to hang out for a week, camp and clean the area. We don’t necessarily just hang out but we also incorporate our Navajo culture in our youth and try to teach them things we grew up with.”

Mooneyham mentioned growing up in her community, the elders often assigned tasks for the children to complete, which taught her how to obey orders.

“A lot of elders back home didn’t allow laziness within the kids,” said Mooneyham. “Learning to obey was something that I knew how to do so joining the military was like, ‘ok what do you want me to do next?’”

Mooneyham said she’s grateful for growing up the way she did because it taught her how to be resilient no matter the circumstance.

“I grew up in a reservation where there was a lot of poverty,” said Mooneyham. “You don’t realize how much poverty there is because you’re living in it and that’s the only thing you know. I feel like if you can bounce back from what you learn and what you live through on a reservation, you can go through life in the military.”

For this reason, Mooneyham not only goes back every year to help her community, but also instill her culture in her family.

“Although we are removed from there [the reservation], we still carry it within us and want our youth to know that too,” said Mooneyham. “We always try to figure out what needs to get done whether it’s picking up trash, cleaning up areas or being involved with the community Chapter House.”

The Chapter House is where elders of the community get together to see what people need. During Mooneyham’s time at the reservation, her and her family would see if people needed water, wood hauled or any other basic needs.

“We try and go back there and just help out,” said Mooneyham. “In doing all that, you don’t realize how much you’re doing, you’re just doing it because that’s what you should do in my opinion: give back to your roots.”

Mooneyham said she didn’t expect to win the award and even though it was an individual award, it was anything but that for her.

“This isn’t just my award,” said Mooneyham. “This is our award and what we’ve done together through our unity and being able to come together every year to bring our culture to life and giving back to the community. That’s what I see when I look at this award.”