State Vet's Cemetery has inaugural ceremony

The Missoulian

by Betsy Cohen

MISSOULA – A light breeze arrived Monday afternoon, just as the American flag was raised at the Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery's inaugural Memorial Day ceremony.

Above a crowd of 200 who came to pay their respects and a legion of sharply dressed military veterans, the flag and its high-waving companions the Montana state flag and flags representing each branch of the United States military billowed brightly.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., took in the sight and was impressed by the beauty of the cemetery located near Big Sky High School.

The last time Tester was there, at its groundbreaking nearly two years ago, the cemetery was a weedy field.

"The work that has been done here in such a short time is astounding," said Tester.

The cemetery would not have been possible without the unrelenting drive of Montana's veterans, who proposed the project, and without the extra push from Tester, who helped break bureaucratic logjams and secure nearly $4 million in federal funding to make it possible, said Joe Foster, administrator of the Montana Veterans Affairs Division.

Per capita, Montana has the highest number of men and women who enlist in the military, and the state's population of veterans is the second highest in the nation, Foster said.

Foster reflected on Montana's past and present. "We are a remarkable state, a remarkable people," he said.

Brig. Gen. John Walsh said he was heartened to see so many take the time to remember what Memorial Day is about.

"Some say the traditions have been forgotten," Walsh said. "Montana understands the true meaning of why we are here."

Montanans are proud and indebted to the citizen-soldiers who drop everything for duty and country, he said.

"The young men and women from small towns across Montana have helped changed the world," he said.

After reading aloud the names of Montana soldiers who have died in the War on Terrorism, Walsh turned to the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to conclude.

"Freedom cannot be bestowed, it must be achieved," he said.

At the ceremony's end, Sen. Tester, a former music teacher, picked up his trumpet and played a heartfelt rendition of taps. The notes lingered in the air over the crowd's bent heads and quiet reflection.