In 2001, Omar Benally was getting ready to graduate from St. Michael Indian School near Window Rock, Arizona, when he picked a fight with his parents.
“I don’t want anybody yelling at my son,” Benally’s dad—a Green Beret—responded when he learned his son wanted to join the Marines.
The men talked through the disagreement and Benally explained that he already knew college wasn’t for him.
“I said I wanted to travel,” Benally remembered. “I gestured with my fingers and said, ‘I’ve seen this much of the world.’ I put my arms out and I said, ‘I want to see this much.’”
As an aircraft mechanic in the Marines, Benally was able to see more of the world than most ever will.
“Being a C130 mechanic, I traveled a lot,” he said, referencing the large, four-engine turboprop transport planes employed by the military. “I lived in Okinawa for two years. I got to see a lot of Asia and, even when I was stationed in New York, we were going out to Europe.”
Benally served for five years, during which the United States initiated Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I was there in OIF-II,” he said using an acronym to describe the second year of the operation. “We were there for the push for Fallujah and some of those [events].
“I’ve almost circumnavigated the world,” Benally continued. “From Bangladesh to Iraq. Maybe one of these days I’ll get there.”
For now, Benally is staying busy with his wife, Lydia, as a father of four in Moriarty, New Mexico. The two met when Benally was in Colorado earning his Airframe and Powerplant Technician certification after his service.
“In the military, you’re very, very focused on one job,” Benally said. “As an A&P, we do everything on the aircraft but, in the military, it was really [specialized]. I was an engine and fuel systems mechanic. I figured I needed the airframe training part of it because I didn’t even know how to buck a rivet or anything like that.”
With his certification, Benally went to work and was eventually offered a position in Santa Fe. He was then transferred to Cheyenne for five years and, currently, is traveling between Santa Fe and Reno for work. It’s a different kind of travel, but Benally digs it.
“I love this job,” he said. “I hope it lasts forever.”
Picking up the Rope
Team roping has also sent Benally down the road in recent years.
At the Navajo Nation Warriors And Rodeo clinic with Erich Rogers, Derrick Begay and Aaron Tsinigine he helped organize for fellow veterans in 2022, Benally heeled on his go-to mare, Media Luna (named for the half-moon mark on her face). In April, about a month before the clinic, the duo qualified for the Ariat WSTR Finale in Las Vegas, Nevada, when they took second in the #7 at the Albuquerque Qualifier roping with Andres Mendoza.
Then, just days following the clinic, Benally and Curtis Imming, with whom he organized the WAR event, took first place in the #6 Buckle Up at the NTR’s Mormon Lake roping.
Roping is a relatively new endeavor for Benally, who bought his first horse in 2020. He grew up around livestock, but the roping was different.
“On the Navajo Rez, we had cows and we had horses,” he explained, “but we do it old style, on foot, around the post. Rope the head, rope the feet and flank the calf right there. That’s how we’d do our brandings.”
Benally’s uncles, though, were team ropers and he would regularly work the chutes for them. So when he got involved with veteran programs that provided the same kind of camaraderie the military did, it wasn’t long before he started looking for a group that could give him that kind of experience through roping, which is how he became involved with Warriors And Rodeo.
All to say, to make the Finale in 2022 after starting to rope in 2020 is pretty remarkable. While no checks were won in Vegas, Benally was able to celebrate some good runs, and all while experiencing the event for the first time.
“We roped good that week. We went to Wickenburg on the way there and we were in the running in the #8. And then, we made the short round—eighth high call—at the Mathews [Land & Cattle] outside the South Point. It just didn’t work out. It was just one of those things.”
What’s Next for Omar Benally?
Benally isn’t sure what’s next in the roping arena except for working on his heading now.
“I’m having fun with that,” he said of roping on his new horse, Valiente, who works both ends. “I’ve mostly been focusing on heading with him and it’s coming along pretty good.
“He’s fast,” Benally continued. “He’s probably the fastest horse I’ve ever been on. He’s fun to ride; he’s really soft. Yeah, he’s a good one.”
On the weekend of this interview, Benally was heading home for his daughter’s cheer competition and, with kids between the ages of 3 and 10, he and Lydia have plenty to keep them busy. He doesn’t know exactly what the roping arena holds for him this year, but he does know he’s discovered a great group of ropers in his area.
“I came upon some really, really good guys that I rope with in Moriarty and they help me out a lot,” Benally said, who is already assisting the planning of a second Navajo Nation WAR clinic in May. “We’re going to, hopefully, make it as good as it was last year.”