Unfortunately, the Fallen Soldier Memorial on the University of Montana campus is a growing concern.
Bob Jordan of Garden City Monument Services crouched in the deep shade of a gracious Norway maple Thursday and etched in stone the names of two more Montana men who died in combat on foreign soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
The tributes to Sgt. James Riekena of Missoula and Antonio Burnside of Great Falls and Browning joined those of 40 other Montanans who were immortalized in recessed granite tablets last November when the memorial was dedicated.
“Every time we do this, we hope and pray it’s the last time,” said David Bell, as Jordan put on the finishing touches to Riekena’s tablet.
Bell is co-founder and president of Grateful Nation Montana. That’s the organization formed in 2007 for the specific purpose of facilitating college educations for the children of soldiers killed while on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bell graduated from the University of Montana in 1996 and in May became president and chief operating officer of ALPS Corp., a Missoula-based lawyers’ professional liability insurance company.
The timing of the inscriptions was fitting, in the days leading up to the Fourth of July.
“It just feels right on what is essentially the eve of the celebration of our independence to etch the additional names of the men that have fought to preserve our independence,” Bell said.
The tribute to Riekena 5 1/2 years after his death was one Grateful Nation missed last year. Riekena was born in Missoula in 1984 and moved with his family to Redmond, Wash., in 1993. He went to work in Post Falls, Idaho, after high school and joined the National Guard, becoming a combat engineer.
He served his first tour in Iraq with the Idaho National Guard, and volunteered for a second tour in Iraq in 2006, bolstering the ranks of the short-staffed Puerto Rico National Guard. The Army said Riekena, 22, was killed on Jan. 14, 2007, in Baghdad when an improvised explosive device blew up near his Humvee.
He was buried nine days later in Sunset Memorial Cemetery, after a stirring procession through the streets of Missoula.
Riekena is the third man honored at the memorial to be buried in Missoula, after Missoula Hellgate graduate Andrew Bedard, in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, and Josh Hyland of Missoula Loyola, in Sunset Memorial, both in 2005.
Bell said Riekena’s family attended the unveiling of the memorial on campus last November before a Grizzly football game. One of his relatives asked about including “J.D.” in the tribute and told Bell the story.
Bell said he asked Matthew Quinn, the Army’s brigadier general for Montana, what he thought of adding Riekena’s name to the memorial.
“Although he wasn’t recorded as being from Montana, he was coming home to Montana to be buried, so clearly he’s a Montana boy,” Bell said. “We knew right away we had, in essence, missed one in our original count, so we added him to all our lists.”
Burnside, 31, an Army specialist, died during an insurgent attack in the Ghanzi region of Afghanistan on April 6. He was buried with military honors in the Many Hides Family Cemetery in Browning. A traditional dancer and singer from the Blackfeet Tribe, he left a family that included a wife and four children.
“Tony was the first soldier that we lost after the unveiling of this memorial,” Bell said. “He wasn’t gone even a week before his father called the Grateful Nation office in Conrad to inquire about having Tony’s name engraved.”
Bob Burnside is a Griz fan, and drives from Great Falls to Missoula for football games. He’d seen the Fallen Soldier Memorial on those visits.
“He said he came by here and looked at this hoping he’d never have to see his son there,” Bell said. “When he did get that fateful phone call, he reached out to us.”
Because of Montana’s strict privacy laws, one of the big challenges for Grateful Nation Montana after a soldier is lost is getting in touch with the family and finding out how the young organization can help. It offers the children of fallen warriors tutoring, mentoring and then a full college scholarship.
Burnside’s untimely death and his father’s quick response “was just another addition to a long list of ways that we didn’t even fully appreciate that this would touch people,” Bell said.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at email@example.com.