Giddy smiles gave way to solemn faces at Missoula’s Memorial Rose Garden on Friday, when seventh-grade students from Meadow Hill Middle School learned about fallen veterans as part of the school’s annual Memorial Day celebration.

“Our students get the day off,” said Mary Pat Malerk, event coordinator and teacher at Meadow Hill. “We thought it would be important for them to know why.”

Students rotated between four stations, listening to presentations on the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as tidbits about life in the military. The processions culminated in a moment of silence under a tree dedicated to Andrew Bedard, a young Marine from Missoula who died while serving in Iraq.

Honor, respect and appreciation for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice were themes of the day.

“Unless we keep reminding them, basically history repeats itself,” said Col. Bob Parcell, who talked about the Korean War. “Korea is one war which not a lot of people know about it.”

To solidify his point, Parcell asked students when the war started. Only murmurs came from the audience until Parcell jumped in with a brief history of the conflict.

Seventh-grader Tanner Tromp said his favorite part of the presentations was learning why the American flag appears backward on a ROTC uniform.

“It’s so that when we’re walking the stars are facing forward,” National Guard Cadet Ben Cipriano explained. “These colors don’t retreat.”

Today’s generation needs to have accurate perceptions about military service, said retired Army Lt. Col. Mike Zak, a Vietnam War veteran.

“I try to explain why we tried to stall communism,” he said. “And how things turned out in what was a difficult time for our country.”

As if on cue, clouds blew in, sprinkling the audience with rain while Zak described his time flying a reconnaissance plane at low altitudes over the jungle.

“It was a dangerous job, my airplane took a lot of bullets,” he said. “Luckily none of them entered my body.”

The same good fortune didn’t fall on two of Zak’s fellow squadron members, whose names loomed behind where the colonel spoke, etched into the memorial for Montana soldiers killed in Vietnam.

“It was my generation’s war,” Zak said. “Every generation seems to have one.”

These were fitting words for the event’s heartfelt finale honoring Bedard. A graduate of Hellgate High School, Bedard died in 2005 at the age of 19, when a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee. Bedard and his platoon were on a mission to rescue other Marines caught in a firefight.

“He swerved to avoid the bomb, saving the lives of three others,” said Malerk, whose sons attended Boy Scouts with Bedard. “He was the only one who died.”

And just when school buses started pulling up to carry them away, the seventh-graders decorated Bedard’s memorial tree with red, white and blue streamers which sparkled as the rain clouds finally parted and sunshine swept over the park.

Brett Berntsen is a University of Montana journalism student and an intern at the Missoulian. He can be reached at 523-5210 or at brett.berntsen@missoulian.com.

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