"I don't care to be remembered as a smart guy, an athletic guy, or a good soldier. I want people to say, ‘that Mike really did love his family.' I want you to know that my last thoughts were of you."

- U.S. Army Capt. Michael MacKinnon, in a letter to his wife Bethany and their children Madison and Noah, to be delivered in the event of his death in Iraq

They received the letter six years ago

Nearly a century after the University of Montana honored people associated with the college who died in the war to end all wars, it paid tribute to the 40 Montanans who have sacrificed their lives in the latest two.

With an overflow crowd of hundreds looking on - including more than 100 survivors of the Montana servicemen who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan - UM unveiled its Fallen Soldier Memorial on Friday evening.

"Phenomenal," said Michelle Torres of Missoula, mother of U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Travis Arndt, who was killed in Iraq six years ago. "We saw a clipping of it in the newspaper, but to see it in life beats all."

She and her family, including Travis' sisters Amy and Ana, brother Joshua and nephews Caleb, Elijah and Jeremiah, linked arms and circled around the granite tile at the memorial containing his name. Although it lists Bozeman as his hometown, Arndt was actually from Great Falls, Amy said, and joined the National Guard in Missoula.

He was living in Bozeman and attending Montana State University when he was deployed.

Parents, wives, children and siblings searched among the crowd's feet for the granite tile with their loved one's name on it as dark skies began to drizzle. A couple of families, including that of Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremy Monroe of Chinook, left framed photographs of their Marines and soldiers once they found theirs.

Behind them, the larger-than-life bronze memorial - of two parents, a child and a teacher gazing at a makeshift battlefield cross - had just been unveiled.

A member of UM's ROTC prepared to stand guard over it for several hours, until the memorial, by Lincoln artist Rick Rowley, saw its first sunrise Saturday morning.

UM President Royce Engstrom noted that the 40 who have been killed left behind, among other survivors, 28 children.

They are represented by the young boy in the memorial - and all 28 children have been promised a free college education at the Montana public university of their choice by a nonprofit called Grateful Nation Montana.

One of GNM's co-founders, David Bell, was the driving force behind the Fallen Soldier Memorial.

Bell, a UM graduate and now an insurance executive in Bermuda, almost broke down early in his speech when he referred to Bethany MacKinnon, widow of U.S. Army Capt. Michael MacKinnon, and her children.

"This journey has been more than I bargained for," Bell admitted later to a packed house in the Performing Arts and Radio TV-Center's Montana Theatre. "I am haunted by the images of all 40 men."

He thanked former UM President George Dennison for paving the way for the memorial to go up as quickly as it did - Bell came up with the idea just a year ago when he and his wife, Brittany, were strolling across the campus of their alma mater - and Engstrom for keeping the ball rolling.

The $200,000 memorial, paid for by donations, represents a grateful nation, he added.

Its intent is to "Thank you for paying the ultimate price for my freedom," Bell said. "Now what can I do for you?"

Guaranteeing college educations for the children of fallen warriors is his goal. Grateful Nation Montana also offers tutoring and mentoring to the children years before they reach college age.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., talked about three of the 40 at the dedication.

Pvt. Nicholas Cook of Hungry Horse, Baucus said, had a hunger for adventure that led him to serve as an Army paratrooper "in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan."

Sgt. Trevor Johnson of Forsyth "adopted his own slogan of, ‘I can defend those who can't defend themselves.' "

And Marine Cpl. Phillip Baucus of Wolf Creek, the senator's nephew, performed his duties in a quiet, mature manner.

"When Phillip died, he returned to the family ranch for the last time," Baucus said. "We buried his ashes atop his favorite mountain. We all died a bit that day, but we're better people for having known our dear, sweet Phillip."

"What does it mean to be a grateful nation?" Baucus went on. "It means working every day to make this country as good as the men and women who defend it. It means keeping our promises, never forgetting the sacrifices of the 40 Montanans listed on this memorial, and upholding our duty to veterans and their families."

Many of those families will be Bell's guests Saturday at Montana's football game against Western Oregon.

"The families from Bozeman," he said, "politely turned us down."

The new bronze sits next to Memorial Row, a series of ponderosa pines planted in memory of servicemen and women from UM who lost their lives in World War I.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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