PHOENIX – Growing up on the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix, Brian Alphus Jr. is familiar with the story of Ira Hayes.
The two are similar in many ways – they're both Native Americans from the same Pima reservation. And like Hayes, Alphus plans to enlist this summer in the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 19.
Hayes went on to worldwide fame, captured in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of six U.S. Marines raising an American flag over Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. He was the one at the far left reaching for the flagpole.
His heroics occurred 75 years ago this week, but they still resonate today.
"Ira was an idol to the community, a hero and a role model," said Alphus, who added that he didn't have "a father role model" in his life and veterans like Hayes help fill the gap.
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Many of the Gila River Indian Community members spoke of Hayes' legacy Saturday during a military parade near the Veterans Memorial Park on the Gila River Indian Community 40 miles southeast of Phoenix.
Several hundred people from near and far attended the celebration, which was held in honor of the 75th anniversary of the flag-raising.
To Valerie Fagerberg, Hayes' story was one of resilience because, in addition to surviving the war, he had to battle post-traumatic stress and survivor's guilt during a time when there weren't many resources available for veterans. Fagerberg is a resource navigator for the community's veteran and family services office.
"For him to go through what he was put through and for this community to come together and honor him, as a tribal member, makes me very proud," she said.
Hayes was born in 1923 in Sacaton, Arizona. In 1942, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and fought in the Solomon Islands at Vella Lavella, the Bougainville Campaign and Iwo Jima, among other places. Hayes earned the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a Combat “V” and Combat Action Ribbon.
When he came back, he was hailed as a hero and even played himself in the 1949 Hollywood film "The Sands of Iwo Jima," starring John Wayne.
But life ended tragically. His experiences in the war left him with feelings of depression and isolation and what today would be considered post-traumatic stress disorder.
On the night of Jan. 24, 1955, the 33-year-old became intoxicated during a poker game and fell in a drainage ditch, where he died of exposure. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, not far from the Iwo Jima Memorial.
Wayne Allison's great grandmother, Emma Whittaker, and Hayes' mother, Nancy Whittaker Hayes, were sisters.
"It means a lot to us, the family, knowing that there was a Native American who raised the flag (and) became symbolic of America," he said, adding that he didn't understand the gravity of his family's history until he became an adult.
Now, Allison represents the family at various events across the country, including on Saturday in Sacaton. There, he displayed one of Hayes' military dog tags. Hayes was buried with the other.
More than 30 years ago, Gila River Indian Community members Lancelot and Shirley Lewis began creating a monument of Hayes at the Veterans Memorial Park with help from Oscar Urrea, a sculptor.
The monument features a stone base, black tile and a bronze relief of the flag-raising. Several stones placed at the top of the monument were requested from Iwo Jima grounds, Lancelot said.
Lancelot, a Vietnam veteran, was the commander of the Ira Hayes American Legion Post 84 in Sacaton at the time. Since the creation of the monument in 1988, the community has celebrated Hayes and the flag-raising at Iwo Jima annually at the park, he said.
Brian Alphus' mother, Carol Alphus, said she hopes her son can someday be a role model in the the same way Hayes is a role model to him.
"I'm very humble and happy in knowing I'm part of him (Hayes) and that we're carrying his memory on and in our hearts."
Follow reporter Chelsea Curtis on Twitter @curtis_chels.
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This article originally appeared on The Republic | azcentral.com: Iwo Jima anniversary: Flag-raiser Ira Hayes inspires 75 years later