The 17-year-old Ira Hamilton Hayes has never been off the Pima reservation in Arizona when he enlists in the United States Marine Corps to serve his country in World War II. Hayes is shunned by fellow soldiers or mocked as Chief by them except for one, Jim Sorenson. By chance they are two of the five U.S. servicemen who memorably hoist the American flag on Mt. Suribachi during the violent battle at Iwo Jima, after which Sorenson is killed by enemy fire. A morose and traumatized Hayes returns home, where he is proclaimed a hero and recruited to help sell war bonds to the public. As his depression mounts, Hayes, feeling unworthy of the attention and publicity, takes refuge in whiskey. His continued drunkenness becomes a public scandal. Hayes simply wishes to be left alone, but a tribal chief implores him to go to Washington, D.C., on his people's behalf to seek political support for an irrigation bill. Not until he visits an Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, Virginia does he sober up and pull himself together. Hayes returns to the reservation, but is deeply disappointed when the tribal council no longer seems to want anything to do with him. He begins drinking again and goes off into the hills, where he dies of exposure to the elements ten years after the Iwo Jima battle. He is 32.