It’s been 72 years since Ron “Rondo” Scharfe stole a blank baptism certificate from church, forged his birthdate and deployed to Okinawa, Japan.
“I was only 16. There was another guy over there with us who was only 15 who did the same thing,” Scharfe said. “Times have changed, you know. Back then, everything was an adventure.”
Two weeks after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he was on the ground there. The radiation left behind by the devastating explosion later claimed his thyroid, but at 88, Scharfe is still proud to introduce himself, with a firm handshake, as a veteran.
Scharfe was far from alone in sporting the classic black snapback hat denoting years of service and military branch. Veterans and their families gathered under the pavilion at the Fort Missoula Regional Park Saturday — a change from the usual gathering outside the Missoula County Courthouse.
Saturday marked the 99th anniversary of Veterans Day, which began as Armistice Day — the day Germany and its World War I allies agreed to a ceasefire with France and its allies, including the United States, on Nov. 11, 1918.
Representatives of Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. Steve Daines delivered messages to the small crowd under the park pavilion. Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss and Mayor John Engen also spoke briefly, apologizing for the courthouse construction, which kept the ceremony from its usual location at the doughboy statue.
The ceremony traditionally led by Dan Gallagher and Dan Krieg, both of whom passed away last December, was carried on by the American Legion Post 101’s new leadership team, Sergej Michaud and Clinton Decker. At 34 and 35, respectively, the new commander and junior vice commander worked through the past year to breathe new life into Post 101, which teetered on the brink of collapse after the passing of “the Dans.”
“It’s my first speech I’ve ever written, so I thought it went pretty good,” Michaud said after the ceremony. He reminded the attendants that the best kind of war is the one never fought, but asserted that America’s fighting force was second to none when necessary.
A Purple Heart recipient who served in Iraq, Michaud is considerably younger than most members of Post 101, and is currently attending graduate school at the University of Montana. Decker, the Post’s junior vice commander, said during his speech that it had been a busy year trying to fill the shoes of the Dans.
Decker touched on some of the issues facing veterans in America during his speech, including the struggle to reintegrate into society. He said that as a leader of Post 101, he would be a voice for our veterans, and help those struggling with work, healthy relationships and purpose in civilian life.
He reminded those in the crowd to check in on each other, and pointed to the staggering rate of veteran suicide — around 22 lives lost per day — drawing gasps and tears from some members of the crowd.
The Rev. Paul Armstrong, a Veterans Ministries chaplain, led prayers during the ceremony and read from a poem by the Rev. Paul Swerdlow, another Army chaplain.
“I pledged my life, my property, my sacred honor, until there will be peace and freedom on Earth for everyone, everywhere. I am a veteran.”