How an Indigenous vet who was programmed to kill found his spirituality

At the beginning of the '70s, Bill Greenwalt was trained to kill by the U.S. Marine Corps. Ten years ago, he was finally able to “deprogram” his military mentality after finding Ojibway ceremonies.

Bill Greenwalt has found peace after connecting to his Ojibway roots

Greenwalt joined the Marines when he was 17 years old. He is encouraging people to shake hands with veterans on the streets and in public. (Colton Hutchinson/CBC)

At the beginning of the 1970s, Bill Greenwalt was trained to kill by the U.S. Marine Corps. Ten years ago, he was finally able to "deprogram" his military mentality after finding Ojibway ceremonies.

"I was programmed to kill. That was my job," said Greenwalt.

Greenwalt was 17 and looking to fill a void in his life. That was when he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and was put through their rigorous military boot camp training.

"I had a father who was very abusive and I needed to get away from that," said Greenwalt.

He grew up in the United States and served stateside with the Marines during the Vietnam War. When he started his service, it was with a motor transport unit as a heavy duty mechanic.

"They break you down so you become a program to their way. Some people say it's almost a cult. It's almost like the Spartans," said Greenwalt.

Even though he was a mechanic, the training that came with being in the Marines still put an emphasis on being a soldier.

"You're a Marine first and you're a rifleman first," he said.

After four years of service in the Marines, Greenwalt said that some of his childhood traumas started to affect his mental health.

"I enlisted when I was 17 and it was a wonderful experience … some of my past started to come in and it manifested in a panic disorder and neurosis, according to the military."

Finding peace through spirituality

After leaving the Marines, Greenwalt had to relearn how to deal with personal conflicts.

"It was tough because the Marines, not to say that they're bad or anything, but I think all American military and even Canadian military they don't deprogram you," said Greenwalt.

He ended up going through several failed relationships and struggled with drug and alcohol addictions. He watched his mother go through an Alcoholics Anonymous program and was inspired by her to start working on himself.

"My mom is kind of my hero," said Greenwalt.

As a child, Greenwalt said that being Indigenous wasn't something that was celebrated, but it was something that he knew was a part of his blood.

His Ojibway ancestry comes from his paternal grandmother and said that his dad "totally denounced his heritage."

With the help of mental health counselling, he was able to get a job at an Indian casino in Wisconsin. While he was working there, he was able to establish relationships with other Indigenous co-workers, and he was introduced to a new way of life.

"A lot of the people I talked to were starting to help me get back to that culture, that spiritualism," said Greenwalt.

He ended up fasting and started attending sweat lodge ceremonies. He gives credit to the ceremonies for being able to bring peace into his life.

"I'm so close to my creator right now in a lot of ways," he said. "I don't pray as much as I should, but anytime I do pray, I always pray for others, I'll pray for myself last."

These days, it's hard to miss Bill Greenwalt on the streets of Winnipeg. The grandfather walks around with black beret and a jean jacket that features several military patches and a huge medicine wheel on the back, with the words "mishoomis ogichida."

Bill Greenwalt is an Indigenous veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps. He credits his spirituality for being able to live a peaceful life. (Colton Hutchinson/CBC)

Mishoomis ogichidaa translates to "grandfather warrior" in the Ojibway language.

Greenwalt hopes his story can inspire people to think about the sacrifices that veterans have made in the U.S. and Canada.

"I think about it now, of all the brothers and sisters who have given their their lives to the peace and to give us the freedoms that we have," said Greenwalt.

"I hope they start to learn to respect the veterans. I mean, all veterans are human beings, too."

With files from Colton Hutchinson

About the Author

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1