Veterans Day in Missoula will have a different feel to it this year.
For one thing, the county courthouse lawn is fenced off and under renovation. American Legion Post 101’s annual program of speeches and tributes under the World War I doughboy statue won’t take place there Saturday morning but at the pavilion of the new Fort Missoula Regional Park across town.
For another, Dan Gallagher and Dan Krieg will be there in memory only.
The Dans, both Vietnam veterans, were leaders of Forgotten Warriors Post 101 and movers behind its Veterans Day ceremony since they helped start the post and the November tradition 36 years ago.
They died last December within 12 days of each other, and their absences are profoundly felt in the days leading up to Nov. 11.
“To my knowledge they pretty much put it all together,” said Clinton Decker, Post 101’s Junior Vice Commander. “We’re trying our best to fill some tall shoes.”
Gallagher was ailing last November and his children, two of whom are members of Post 101, helped organize the ceremony.
“Colin Gallagher lives in Las Vegas and he stops in every time he’s in Missoula,” Decker said from Post 101 headquarters at the Old Post Pub on West Spruce Street. “He’s got a wealth of knowledge. We’re still trying to pick his brain.”
The losses of the Dans created another, deeper void.
“It kind of left the post in question about what was going to happen to it,” said Decker. “With their passing they hadn’t really passed the torch.”
The Montana American Legion’s District 5 leaders held an emergency meeting in January to address the situation.
“That’s when we all joined,” said Decker.
He’s 35 years old. New post commander Sergej Michaud is 34, and a Purple Heart winner from the Iraq war. The Forgotten Warriors post was established for Vietnam veterans, and there are still those, including chaplain Keith Jensen, among its 43 members.
But Michaud, a graduate student at the University of Montana on the GI Bill, said most are veterans of the Iraq-Afghanistan war era are in their 20s and 30s. That’s far younger than the average Legionnaire age of 64.
“We’re actually one of the youngest posts, at least in Montana, so it’s been kind of a short period of time revamping it, restructuring it and reorganizing it where it can be, No. 1, more efficient and, No. 2, do its primary job giving back to veterans and families in the community,” said Michaud.
That doesn’t mean forgetting Veterans Day and Post 101’s traditional role in its observance.
“We are going to continue as we always have,” Michaud said. “Our main goal is continue the legacy.”
The post committee agreed the speeches should be kept short and, considering the weather, the whole ceremony will limited to an hour, tops.
“That will keep it more fluid, but still touching,” Michaud said. “It’s going to be our first one for the younger guys, so it’ll be kind of like a trial. We’ll have an after-action to see what can be improved on next year.”
He misses Gallagher, Michaud said.
“He was the one who recruited me four years ago. He and I used to sit at the Old Post and talk about history. We’d sit down for a 20- or 30-minute lunch and talk for three or four hours about Missoula history, the history of his family, his Irish heritage. We’d trade stories between Vietnam and Iraq.”
As usual, Mayor John Engen is on Saturday’s slate of speakers. So are representatives from the Missoula County Commission and the offices of U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines. As post commander, Michaud will speak in the role so many times assumed by Gallagher, who in 2006 closed his address by thanking attendees for enduring the cold November wind. It provided, he said, a small taste of the sacrifices war veterans made for them.
“They need to hear of the pride and love that's held for them," Gallagher said that day. "No amount of pride and honor at a ceremony can replace the warmth of a simple thank you."