A week before Veterans Day, the men and women who have and do serve their nation were, on Saturday, front and center at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

Three hundred members of the Montana Air National Guard, and their families, unfurled the largest American flag in the world before Montana's game against Western Oregon - an 850-pound, 45,000 square-foot version that covered the green turf in a sea of red, white and blue.

Two F-15 fighter jets from Malmstrom Air Force Base streaked overhead moments later, leaving a thunderous roar in their wake.

The roar for the Silvertip Skydivers, who all planted themselves squarely on the grizzly bear at midfield a week after one of their members was seriously injured trying to negotiate his way through swirling winds into the stadium, seemed a little louder Saturday. So did the roar after "The Star Spangled Banner" was sung.

It all came just hours after the university unveiled a new $200,000 monument on campus paying tribute to the 40 Montana servicemen who have sacrificed their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan since terrorists steered commercial jets into the Twin Towers and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

From his perch between stadium sections 108 and 109, former UM forestry professor Fred Gerlach could only ponder how different things are.

"There seems to be a change in attitude," said Gerlach, who has been serving as an usher at Grizzly games since 1973. "People remember to honor these people who stick their necks out for us."

Forty years ago, it's doubtful you would have seen any such scenes on an American college campus.

***

Gerlach, a veteran himself, was absent from UM during the height of Vietnam War protests, when he was a National Science Foundation Faculty Fellow at the University of Minnesota.

"I missed the most difficult times," Gerlach said. "The university president then, (Robert) Pantzer, had a lot of difficult problems, dealing with the war protesters. Those were tough years in the early 1970s, living in this country. Some of the public thought we had to fight, and the rest thought we were wasting resources and lives."

Anti-war sentiments reached a fever pitch as details of the My Lai Massacre became public, and President Richard Nixon expanded the war into Cambodia. The killing of four anti-war protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970 ratcheted up tensions on college campuses across the nation even more.

American troops, many of whom were drafted into service, returned from Vietnam to mixed welcomes at best. Many felt despised for fighting in the war.

"At least we're not doing that now," Gerlach said.

***

No, patriotism was on full display Saturday, when more than 100 survivors of the 40 Montanans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan were in south end zone seats as the guests of David Bell, driving force behind UM's new Fallen Soldier Memorial.

"It was one of the most moving moments I'll ever have," Bell said of Friday's unveiling. "I've been stopped 100 times today, particularly by veterans from the Vietnam era who didn't have the welcome home they deserved. Many of them said they felt the memorial was partly for them, which is exactly what I wanted."

Everything seemed to weave together as well as could be hoped as kickoff approached.

In the wake of last week's near-tragedy, the skydivers didn't get the go-ahead to continue jumping into Washington-Grizzly until Friday. Then, Scott Spraycar, Dave Stewart and Brett Wold went 3-for-3, all nailing their landings on the grizzly bear.

The university will decide later whether the skydivers will be allowed to continue making their pre-game entrances in future seasons.

Moments later, the flag - officially, the "Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl Big Flag" - was stretched from sideline to sideline and end zone to end zone under cloudy skies that had dumped snow earlier.

Had there been any precipitation, the giant flag never would have left the van.

"It costs $15,000 to $18,000 to dryclean it," said Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Robert Harden of Camp Pendleton, who drove the flag from San Diego to Missoula and put the 300 volunteers through flag unfurling and refolding school earlier Saturday morning in preparation for the pregame ceremony.

"It mildews easily, because it's all nylon," Harden went on.

It was the flag's second appearance at Washington Grizzly. It was fist unfurled here on Oct. 31, 2009, before a game against Weber State.

Harden volunteers his time escorting the flag to sporting events - he, and Old Glory, have been to Super Bowls and World Series - and said the trip from California to Missoula in a rental van took 22 hours.

"The van had a regulator on it that wouldn't let us go over 70," he said, "or we'd have been here a little sooner."

The day for honoring veterans at UM's final home game of the regular season came six days before the actual Veterans Day, which happens Friday.

 

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