It’s approaching dusk on a crisp November evening when a gray-haired Mike Kruger arrives at the University of Montana campus and steps to the base of the Fallen Soldier Memorial.

The larger-than-life bronze statue sits prominently on Memorial Row, a section of campus Kruger often passed 41 years ago as a young Vietnam veteran turned UM student who aspired to become a wildlife biologist.

Back in his student days, however, this towering bronze monument wasn’t here. UM had no visible tributes to the nation’s fallen troops, no markers of gratitude or thanks. While young men fought and died in Vietnam, students at home protested the war, taking their anger out on Marines like Kruger, who did the nation’s bidding.

“I think there’s a lot of guilt about how they treated us vets back then,” Kruger said, thinking back to his return from Vietnam and his days as a student. “Maybe they’ve come to realize that it’s the vets that allow them to do what they do at this university.”

The fact that Kruger is standing before this monument as an older man now 40 years removed from his days as a student marks a major shift in thinking. As a story, it represents the ability of a once bitter veteran to forgive a painful past history.

Kruger was a student when he turned his back on UM for good in 1971, after returning from the Vietnam War to find the North Vietnamese flag flying prominently over the school.

That was a different time in America, Kruger admits, but even so, he never forgave the university and the students who attended it. He came to despise UM and all it stood for – a frustration born from the treatment he’d received after Vietnam.

“The animosity toward veterans at the university back then was unbelievable,” Kruger said. “The administration permitted it to fester. They allowed the mistreatment of veterans to take place and it was difficult to go out there every day. I didn’t like it one bit.”

***

A photo lies in a drawer of Kruger’s office – an image of a young Marine holding an M-16 rifle near a perimeter of razor wire. The grainy photo is dated 1969. It was taken at “L.Z. Russell” in Vietnam.

There in Vietnam, Kruger served as a wireman on a three-man team comprised of a radio operator, a scout and a forward observer. It was their job to look for North Vietnamese activity and call in preemptive strikes to quash enemy movement.

Kruger never hesitated in his service to his country. His father served in North Africa during World War II under Gen. George Patton. Answering the nation’s call was something the Krugers did. It was a family tradition born of duty and pride.

“It was the honorable thing to do, honoring the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization,” said Kruger. “We did good things for the South Vietnamese. Nobody talked about that. The North Vietnamese weren’t kind to them. There was nothing kind about communism.”

Coming home from the war to pursue his dreams of becoming a biologist, Kruger enrolled at UM during the winter semester 1971. He aspired to work as a game warden in the Montana wilds, a goal he’d carried for years.

But once on campus, Kruger was quickly ostracized by his fellow students. He was spat upon by girls he wanted to date, bullied by male peers, shut out of campus activities.

And then there was that North Vietnamese flag flapping in the cold Montana wind. Kruger had survived the brutality of war only to be hurt by an institution he once revered. The wounds cut deep. They were lasting and the burden grew heavy.

“Try walking around with that for 40 years – an institution in your backyard that’s important to the whole community and yet you hate it,” said Kruger. “The bottom line is, I would have bought a box of stick matches to burn the place down and I’d have been happy to do it. I wasn’t the only veteran who felt that way.”

***

In the family tradition, Casey Kruger followed in his father’s footsteps to war. He joined the Marines, attended boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, and served in a tank battalion in Iraq.

America still has its wars and a Kruger has always been there to fight them. It’s one family spanning three generations – three men serving in three distant conflicts. For better or for worse, the nation’s battles continue. That hasn’t changed, but something in Montana is different now than it was in Mike Kruger’s days.

Casey returned from Iraq and enrolled at UM, the very place his father swore off 40 years earlier. But in his father’s absence from campus, that larger-than-life memorial to Montana’s fallen troops had been erected on school grounds, demanding the attention and reflection of passing students.

What’s more, Casey found that philosophies among the student body had changed as well. While many disagree with America’s actions in the Middle East, the hostilities experienced by his father after Vietnam were gone, replaced by doses of thanks, however small they might be.

“It’s a 180-degree turnaround from when my father got spat on and saw the North Vietnamese flag flying right here on campus,” said Casey, standing at the Fallen Soldier Memorial. “That had to be shocking for anyone coming back. I can only imagine what that must have been like for him.”

The healing began this summer as Casey prepared for his sophomore year at UM. One morning, Kruger opened the local paper and saw an ad, something about a traveling Vietnam memorial. Looking closer, he saw that it was going to be displayed at the university.

For a Vietnam vet with bitter memories, UM was an unlikely location for a traveling monument dedicated to those who had been disparaged at the university decades earlier. Mike Kruger was suspicious, but his son had a suggestion.

Why didn’t his father come with him to see the Fallen Soldier Memorial on Memorial Row? In the process, they could also visit the Vietnam memorial. It was a fine idea, but for Kruger, it meant doing the unthinkable. It meant stepping foot on campus.

“I’d never seen my dad on this campus and I think that might have been the first time he’d been here since 1971,” Casey said. “We came up here and I showed him this memorial.”

***

The Fallen Soldier Memorial is cast in bronze. It depicts a family standing before a pair of empty boots with an inverted rifle and a helmet hanging off the butt. It’s an image best known as the Fallen Soldier Battle Cross and it dates back to the Civil War.

Surrounding the monument are 42 names of Montana men killed serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Casey knew one of them personally. That was PFC Andrew Bedard, a Hellgate High School graduate and Marine who was killed by an improvised explosive device in 2005. He’d been in Iraq for one month.

Mike Kruger understood the loss, as did Casey, and they contemplated its meaning as they walked across campus that day to visit the Vietnam memorial. Kruger pointed out the names of the eight men he’d known and lost in Vietnam, his generation’s own defining conflict.

It was an emotional day for father and son, one Marine to another. But something else happened there on campus. A wound began to heal, the burden of hate Kruger had carried for so long began to fall away.

“I came to the conclusion that I could forgive UM,” Kruger said. “It was an emotional thing for me, very much so. I didn’t know how much pent-up anger I’d built up toward that university over time.”

Kruger isn’t one to elaborate and he doesn’t like overstating things. “I don’t want all kinds of warm and fuzzy out there,” he insists, hiding the stubborn grin of a Marine under his graying mustache.

But then the smile fades. He looks away when he considers how his generation of veterans – men who endured so much hate at home – had made it possible for today’s troops to enjoy ticker-tape parades, waving flags and thankful moments.

He lowers his eyes briefly, thinking how a monument like this, dedicated to fallen soldiers and Marines, can now sit on campus, surrounded by drying red roses. He struggles for words, knowing there’s a fresh flag tucked into a pair of empty bronze boots at the center of the university.

UM, he admits, isn’t the place he remembers from his days as a student. Hate, he adds, is a heavy burden to carry.

“You get to the point where you say, ‘You know, maybe they’ve changed and maybe it’s time,’ ” said Kruger. “It’s quite a burden to let loose.”

Martin Kidston covers the University of Montana and the military for the Missoulian. He can be reached at (406) 523-5260 or by email at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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