Standing-room crowd turns out to honor the fallen

Great Falls Tribune

by Traci Rosenbaum

Wind, a few clouds and the threat of rain didn’t stop Great Falls from coming out to honor its fallen veterans Monday as a standing-room crowd gathered at the Montana Veterans Memorial.

The Memorial Day ceremony, which included a flyover from the 120th Airlift Wing and several songs from noted Irish tenor John McDermott, also honored the tenth anniversary of the Veterans Memorial here in Great Falls.

Keynote speaker Marine Col. Eric C. Hastings opened his speech with a reminder for the audience and praise for the memorial.

“There are those that don’t understand the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day,” he said. “Today, Memorial Day is when we honor those that gave their life in the service of their country. Veterans Day is when we honor those that made it home. You have done both here at this veteran’s center.”

Hastings acknowledged not only the sacrifices of past heroes, but of the current generation, many of whom he has recruited to join the armed forces, as a group of young people who “have no memory of a nation not at war” and “have chosen to put their feet in boots and their hearts behind the buttons that secure our respective uniforms and walk into harm’s way.”

Dr. Christine King, a counselor who has worked with many veterans through the Great Falls Vet Center, became visibly emotional when talking about the veterans lost not during battle, but afterward due to suicide.

“Just as we have the highest rate of military service of any state in the union, we have the highest rates of suicide and self-medication,” she said. “We’ve lost too many veterans. I believe that with … devotion and allowing easy access to services, we can completely turn around the untimely deaths of service members in Montana.”

Sen. Jon Tester and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney were also in attendance and gave short speeches to the crowd.

Before the ceremony, Tester said on Memorial Day, he remembers the VFW veterans who asked him to play “Taps” in Big Sandy when he was in seventh grade 47 years ago. He continues to perform to this day, closing Monday’s ceremony with a trumpet solo of the song that has been a requirement at military funerals since 1891.

“Honoring these men and women should not be limited to this one day,” Tester said during his speech. “We should honor them every day and cherish the freedoms that they have died to protect.” Attendees of the ceremony had both first- and secondhand experience with the armed forces. Some were there to honor family members’ sacrifice, while others came to remember fallen friends from their own times of service.

Dave Cunningham, assistant scoutmaster for his 13-year-old son’s troop, said, “I just wanted my son to come experience this and help out and see that it’s more than just what he sees on TV.”

Ralph Eikans, an 81-year old Army and Air Force veteran shook hands with, congratulated and thanked every person who walked past him for their service. Eikans has been helping Vets 4 Vets for 11 years, giving aid to disabled American veterans. “I figured after 20 years in the military, I pretty well knew what they needed,” he said, adding that at the Memorial Day ceremony, he was remembering “a lot of friends.”

Chairman of the Blackfeet Nation Harry Barnes attended the main ceremony and then led another, smaller gathering afterward to commemorate the service of fallen Native American soldiers in an area of the memorial reserved for those men and women.

Kelly reminded listeners that of the 240 tiles placed last year at the site, 162 of them were Native Americans from Browning, and Bill Old Chief spoke of the uncles, son and daughter whose names join his one the memorial wall and of the dedication Native Americans have always displayed when fighting for their country.

“We never became citizens of the United States until 1924, and we fought in every battle,” he said. “We still fight, I believe, for the honor of this land and this country.”

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Traci Rosenbaum at 791-1490. Follow her on Twitter @GFTrib_TRosenba.


At 10 a.m. Wednesday, June 1, Great Falls hosts one of seven ceremonies throughout the state to honor Vietnam veterans with 50th anniversary commemorative lapel pins presented by Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont.

The event will be held at the Four Seasons Arena with Zinke and local military and elected officials honoring and thanking each veteran or accepting family member during the ceremony.