Saluting sacrifice: More than 100 gather to honor area veterans


by Betsy Cohen

On a raw Sunday afternoon, with temperatures dipping below freezing and a steady breeze stirring the Missoula County Courthouse flag, more than 100 people gathered to honor American veterans of war.

Bundled in blankets and sensible winter-weather coats, the crowd bowed their heads in thanks to friends and loved ones who have served, and participated in the heart-felt laying of the wreaths ceremony.

In the moments before the event’s keynote speakers arrived and settled into their seats near the Doughboy statue, many war veterans paused at an honor table, decorated with combat boots, a helmet, a Vietnam-era rifle, and a purple heart medal.

“I think about what I did and what everybody else did,” said World War II veteran Bob Hayes, who came to acknowledge the sacrifices of his friends, of his father who served in World War I, and his grandfather, who fought in the Civil War.

Hayes enlisted in the Army at age 16, and another lifetime ago on Nov. 11, he remembers hunkering down in a foxhole in Germany’s Argonne Forest, where he and his battalion had been fighting for more than a month.

As newly re-elected U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., quietly made his way to an awaiting seat near the lectern, along with 4th Judicial District Court Standing Master Brenda Desmond, Post 101 Adjutant Dan Gallagher, Missoula Mayor John Engen, Missoula County Commissioner Bill Carey and former U.S. Sen. John Melcher, Hayes reflected on one of his life’s most dramatic moments.

As bad as life was in a foxhole, shooting at Germans during a cold November day, Hayes said his initial voyage to the war theater is an experience that still haunts him.

“On our way to Italy, we were in a convoy that was attacked by a German submarine,” Hayes said. “There was some pretty violent action with torpedoes and depth charges going off. We were all down in the hold, and you could hear all the fighting and explosions going on all around us.

“We didn’t understand what was going on, and when we came up on deck, no one told us a thing,” Hayes said. “It wasn’t until five years ago I learned in a book about what happened to our convoy that day. Two American ships sank in the fighting, and our ship was the biggest in the convoy and it was the target. The Germans didn’t want it to get to where we were going because 4,000 American soldiers were on board headed to Italy.”

Similar thoughts were contemplated by the dozens of other war veterans who attended the ceremony.

Some came alone, others with family.

Young and old came to remember, to not forget and to honor the sacrifice and service of the veterans in their lives.

Despite his reliance on a cane and a respectful steadying of the elbow by Tester, Melcher was a compelling storyteller who took to the podium to share a memorable moment during his fighting in World War II.

“I learned a lot in the Army,”said Melcher, a purple-heart recipient.

With a humorous glint in his eye, Melcher brought levity to the solemn service as he unspooled a story about Gen. George Patton, the commander of the Third Army and the 76th division, in which Melcher served.

For months, the troops were holed up in Luxembourg, where it was frigid and raw, much like the weather in Missoula on Sunday, Melcher explained.

One morning, in the midst of these miserable conditions, and with fighting going on all around, Patton issued an order to the front line where Melcher and his comrades fought.

“All personnel will wear a tie,” Melcher recounted with a wry grin, “and a tie came with the breakfast that was served.”

“We often ridiculed the hierarchy in charge, and we thought ‘What a stupid idea.'”

But later, after the ties were handed out and cinched snugly in place, Melcher understood the genius behind Patton’s seemingly ridiculous order.

“I learned from the General that day, if you had a tie on and it was around your collar and sealed up tight, it kept in your body heat.”

From that moment forward, Melcher understood leadership and stopped griping about Patton.

The war lesson about ties still has practical use, Melcher said, especially on frigid days in Montana.

Missoula Mayor John Engen acknowledged the sacrifice and dedication of America’s veterans and their families, and applauded the work of public servants.

Moving a country or a community forward is the result of a shared vision and sacrifice, he said.

“We are not in this alone,” Engen said. “That all here all acknowledge that we matter to one another is a big deal,” he said.

“There are lots of ways to serve our community or country.”

Brenda Desmond with Missoula Veterans Court, urged the crowd to help honor veterans not just in ceremonies, but by employing them.

Montana has the second highest number of war veterans, and 10 percent of Montanans are veterans, Desmond said.

“Let’s honor them by working harder to get them employed,” Desmond said to an applauding crowd. “The percentage of unemployed veterans has gone down, thanks to Sen. Jon Tester’s support of the Vow to Hire Veterans Act.”

However, the percentage of unemployed veterans is still higher than the general population, and yet, hiring veterans is not a charitable act, Desmond said.

Hiring veterans is an investment, she said, and veterans bring highly valued skills to the workplace, such as integrity, leadership, experience with working under pressure and fulfilling difficult missions.

Tester, who quietly arrived to the event by himself without his family or campaign managers, told the crowd it is important “to never forget,” the sacrifices of veterans.

During his first term as senator, he was “appalled’ to learn about the lack of benefits veterans received, and will continue his battle to right that wrong.

After the stories and speeches, the crowd was invited to make their own private honoring by placing a carnation at the honor table.

One by one, individuals lined up and respectfully let those ahead of them have a private moment at the table.

Lips moved in silent prayers, tears slid down some of the faces, salutes were made, and kisses were blown to the wind and memory of a cherished veteran.

Missoula County Commissioner Bill Carey closed out the 70-minute ceremony with a few simple, but powerful words.

“God Bless our veterans,” he said. God Bless America.”