Michelle Torres makes a special stop when she comes to Missoula to visit her children and grandchildren.
“When I do come to town, I usually do come and sit and visit with this,” she said, gesturing to the plaque where Travis Arndt’s name is chiseled in stone at the Fallen Soldier Memorial on the University of Montana campus.
“I really miss him,” she said of her son Saturday after a ceremony dedicating the memorial as the official state Iraq and Afghanistan veterans monument.
Torres especially misses her son’s sense of humor. “It can bring down the room.”
Arndt, 23, died in 2005 when an armored vehicle the U.S. Army sergeant was in rolled over in Iraq. The memorial helps her heal after the loss, Torres said.
Forty-two other Montana soldiers’ families and loved ones also lost a service member in Iraq or Afghanistan, and those 43 heroes are immortalized at the memorial, which was unveiled in November 2011.
The monument was designated as the state memorial this spring with a unanimous vote by the 2013 Legislature, then with Gov. Steve Bullock’s signature in April.
The five bronze statues surrounded by granite tablets – inscribed with soldiers’ names, branches, rank, years of life and their hometowns – serve to honor the soldiers’ sacrifice, but also to celebrate their lives, speakers at Saturday’s dedication said.
“And we strive to live better under the freedom they provide us,” said David Bell, co-founder of Grateful Nation Montana, which led efforts to create the monument.
“We are Montana because they are Montana,” Bell said.
Saturday’s dedication was a way to again celebrate the soldiers’ lives, he said. “This memorial is just one example of the way that we honor the service they gave for our country and for what ultimately turned out to be the ultimate sacrifice.”
Community response to the memorial has been overwhelmingly positive since its unveiling nearly two years ago, he said.
“The feedback has been really heartening because family members and members of the community have an emotional connection to that memorial in ways we never imagined,” he added.
The university campus is a fitting place for the memorial, University of Montana President Royce Engstrom said.
Roughly 550 veterans currently study at the institution, and the university is constantly striving to build a better bridge between campus and veterans, he said.
Soldiers named on the memorial carried the core Montana value of service, Bullock said.
“We believe that when we give something back, we make our nation even stronger,” he said.
Unified support for the memorial shows that no matter what people’s differences, “at the end of the day, we can rise to a higher calling,” he added.
Answering that call – and making their families proud – was all he and his Great Falls childhood friend, U.S. Army Cpl. Antonio Burnside, wanted to do, said Dustin Monroe, who also served in the Army.
Burnside died at the age of 31 when his patrol came under small arms fire in Afghanistan in 2012.
“I come by sometimes because, for me, that could be me,” Monroe said.
And as it turns out, Burnside did make his father proud.
“Just awfully proud of him. Not many people get to go out and say I’m a hero,” Bob Burnside said of his son. “I’m glad they honor these kids here.”
Torres, too, said she’s glad the memorial stands in tribute to the soldiers.
“We would not be able to be standing here if it weren’t for them,” she said.
To learn more about the memorial, go to www.gratefulnation