‘Living up to the promises'

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Laura Lundquist

Veterans weren’t sure that their guest speaker would arrive in time for Monday’s celebration, but Sen. Jon Tester wasn’t put off by a little inclement weather.

Three Forks has gained a reputation for putting on one of the state’s largest celebrations of Veterans Day, and Monday morning’s event at the Three Forks School continued the tradition in red, white and blue style. Gallatin Valley veterans belonging to several organizations, including units of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the Vietnam Veterans of America, have come together for years to participate in the Three Forks event.

But over the years, while the audience has grown slightly, the veterans’ ranks have dwindled. Ray Lau, a World War II veteran who has long been the event’s host, signaled the color guard to kick off the event a few minutes late after receiving word that Tester was on his way. Tester was slated to speak midway through the program.

Tester spokesman Les Braswell said snow and ice delayed Tester’s flight out of the Great Falls area.

“Since it’s one of the biggest in the state, the senator has been hoping to work it in for years,” Braswell said.

Fidgeting school children wearing red, white and blue T-shirts turned the bleachers of one side of the gymnasium into a modified American flag as they nervously waited their turns to sing patriotic songs.

The audience swelled to a few hundred as proud parents and community members filled the other side, lifting their voices as they were asked to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” and accompany third-graders leading the “Pledge of Allegiance.”

Soon after, Tester hurried into the gymnasium to be greeted by a relieved Lau. A short time later, Tester thanked the veterans for their service and spoke of his efforts to ensure that veterans have the medical and social support they need after making the sacrifices required of military members.

Tester sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and has pushed for legislation that would help Montana’s veterans, such as improving access to military health records and providing transportation to Veterans Administration medical facilities. Montana has one VA hospital in Fort Harrison.

Twelve towns around the state contain associated outpatient facilities. Post-traumatic stress disorder presents growing mental-health challenges for veterans, so the VA needs money to hire more health care professionals to work in the rural areas of Montana, Tester said.

“The veterans here today and around this country know that there’s nothing glamorous about war – it’s dangerous, it’s bloody, it’s gut-wrenching but sometimes necessary. For those who have served on the battlefield, they will tell you that it will change you forever,” Tester said. “I see veterans returning home that suffer from injuries, and I ask this question, ‘Are we as a nation living up to the promises that we made these men and women who signed up to serve?'”

Later in the ceremony, Lau asked the audience to remember those missing or killed in combat. Among the veterans sat a petite lady in a flight suit who knew first-hand the struggle of having a loved one missing in action. Maxine Pogreba, 89, had been married to U.S. Air Force pilot Dean Pogreba when he was shot down over Vietnam. Twelve years later, all those whose remains hadn’t been found were declared killed in action. “He had served in World War II and the Korean War. When the Vietnam War came along, he was tired of war. But he went,” Pogreba said.

Lau’s voice wavered as he remembered lost friends. “We must not forget our comrades,” Lau said. “They must remain alive in our minds and our hearts until we know that they have either returned home to their loved ones or have been called to the bosom of their creator.”