Jon Tester, others pay tribute to fallen in Missoula Memorial Day ceremonies
On a day to remember veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester paid tribute to those men and women, and also issued a call to make sure the nation honors its deep debt to other veterans as well.
It’s crucial to make sure, he said, “that we live up to the promise we made to these folks” – applause began, spreading throughout Monday afternoon’s gathering at the Memorial Rose Garden – “to make sure they have health care, they have housing, they have educational opportunities and they have jobs when they get back.”
Montana’s junior senator spoke at the penultimate of 10 ceremonies that marked Memorial Day in Missoula, the most of any town in any state in the country, according to organizer Susan Campbell Reneau.
The ceremony was one of two at the garden, the last being a procession past the park’s 18 memorials as members of various ladies’ auxiliaries laid wreaths at each.
Sometimes Memorial Day can seem an isolated event, a quick tug at the conscience of a busy populace, a reminder that the nation remains at war. Not so much in Montana, which has the highest per capita enlistment rate of all the states, and especially not this year, when military issues are in the national spotlight.
President Barack Obama highlighted the crisis of sexual assault in the military at his commencement speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, as did U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in his own speech at West Point’s graduation.
Speaking privately Monday, Tester called the problem one that “should never be happening. It needs to be remedied now.”
Also urgent: the backlog of benefits claims awaiting attention by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the high unemployment rate among veterans, which reaches 15 percent among vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“People are watching” and demanding solutions to all those problems, said Tester, who sits on the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee.
Without the sacrifices of veterans, he reminded the crowd at the ceremony Monday, “we could not enjoy the freedoms they secured.”
Veterans old and young applauded the senator’s words. Among the latter was Charlie Gasco, 30, of Missoula, who served in the Marines on Okinawa from 2001 to 2003. He came with his fiancée, Shonna Adams, 35, saying he wanted to remember “the fallen soldiers, the military men and women, to give honor to them.”
Gasco’s future father-in-law, 64-year-old Ron Adams of Missoula, accompanied the young couple. Adams, who served in Vietnam, said he’d never attended the ceremony before, but knew it was important both to Gasco and his daughter.
Among the oldest attendees was Elsie Rieger, a 91-year-old Navy veteran of World War II. She repaired aircraft instruments during the war, service that took her around the country, from basic training in New York, to instrument school in Chicago and then an airfield on an island off San Diego.
“It’s important to show tribute to everybody who served,” she said.
No one pays tribute more enthusiastically than Reneau, who by the time Monday’s traveling ceremony reached the Memorial Rose Garden was hoarse from narrating the eight previous events. But she pushed her trademark red, white and blue hat back from her brow and soldiered on, reciting President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” as a reminder that Memorial Day was created to honor the Civil War dead.
Vince Werner, 91, a B-17 navigator who flew 51 sorties over Italy during World War II sat on a portable stool in the shade, his lips moving as Reneau read the address. He paused when she paused, resumed when she spoke again, speaking the ringing final words aloud with her:
“That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
Werner said he was just thankful to have survived the war. Monday’s ceremony bore witness to just how many people were happy he fought on their behalf.