What’s the deal with the American flag? Why is it so important?

They’re the kind of questions that make even a Navy pilot veteran like Ray Winn pause – all the more because they came from his grandson.

Blake and Brady Williams are first-graders at St. Joseph Elementary School in Missoula, and Winn couldn’t recall Tuesday which of the twins asked him about the flag.

“You know, that’s a pretty deep question, and it’s pretty interesting that he sees there is a little conflict there and a lot of emotion for a veteran,” he said.

And that, he added, was in part how all this got started.

“All this” was a stroll to Rose Park for the Williams twins and the 21 other first-graders in Rachel Bemis’ class at St. Joe’s. They waved small American flags, shouted out “God Bless America” and waited for the walk signal at Brooks and Beckwith streets.

At the park, they watched as seven veterans of four foreign wars from Korea to Afghanistan and Iraq strode toward them.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you very much,” a few of the 6- and 7-year-olds sang.

In groups of three, they scattered to benches and tables throughout the park to interview the vets. Questions ranged from “What’s your favorite color?” to “What do you think kids like me should know about people in the military?”

Not everybody gets killed, came the answer to the latter from Marine Col. John Keefe, who was awarded a Purple Heart and survived two tours of duty each in Korea and Vietnam.

First-graders Cameron, Owen and Reece had their enumerated questions ready for Winn, and carefully recorded each answer before proceeding to the next.

Why did you decide to join the military? Reece wanted to know.

Winn, who flew Navy bombers over Vietnam in two 10-month tours in 1971 and ’72, thought for several moments before he settled on a suitable response.

“Because,” he finally said, “there was a war going on and my brother was already there. I thought I could help him out by going into the Navy and flying.”

Five of the veterans in Rose Park on Tuesday, including Marine Sgt. Ed Kugler of Big Arm, are considered co-authors in Kugler’s 2008 book “My Vietnam: Montana Veterans' Stories Straight from the Heart.”

The other four were Winn of Frenchtown, Keefe of Missoula, Army Spc. 5 Merle Johnston of Missoula, and Roger Cox, a decorated Marine colonel from Huson. The book's stories arose from a Vietnam War class that Johnston began teaching to juniors and seniors at Frenchtown High School in 1996.

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Johnston was drafted 10 days after he graduated from the University of Montana in 1968 and served with the Army in Vietnam until March 1970. Five months later, he was teaching at Frenchtown, where he remained until retirement in 2012.

“I had a lot of issues, anger issues (after the war),” Johnston admitted. “I don’t know how the kids ever survived me, but I was there for 42 years.”

Symposiums for his Vietnam War classes at Frenchtown followed a format similar to Tuesday’s interview session, though with older students. At first, they questioned Johnston, Winn and Cox. A dozen years later, 15 to 20 veterans were involved, Winn said. 

“The high school kids asked some pretty pointed questions,” he said. “It was interesting. Some veterans came out and couldn't handle it. Then they came back the next year, and the questions actually helped them think things out a little bit, things they hadn't realized.”

Tuesday was a blustery, chilly day, especially at 8:15 a.m. when the field trip to the park began. But Bemis was beaming.

Each week, she invites a special guest into her first-grade classroom from the school or the community for an “I Have a Question” session.

“We’ve talked about the best way to get to know someone is to ask them a question, so this is kind of how it evolved,” Bemis said. “They've been practicing a lot of questions.”

Capt. Char Gatlin, chief of staff for the Department of Montana Military Order of the Purple Heart, was one of four Purple Heart recipients taking part.

"It's kind of fun," Gatlin said. "A lot of these gentlemen are retired. It's a great way to come out and give kids sort of an honest opinion of what it is to serve."

Bemis said it wasn't necessarily a Memorial Day exercise, because the focus was on surviving veterans. But on Thursday, May 21, the class will usher in Memorial Day weekend with a reception at the school.

All seven of Tuesday’s participants are invited. The first-graders will share punch and cookies and posters that display their findings from the day at the park.

“I love it,” said Kugler, who has a new book out on Amazon about post-traumatic stress disorder called “Firefights of the Mind: When the Demons of War Follow You Home.”

“They were well-prepared and had good questions. I think it’s a really great activity for kids. But then I love kids.”

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