During halftime of Saturday night's basketball game at Dahlberg Arena, the University of Montana will officially become a Purple Heart university.
It will also honor six veterans who received Purple Hearts while serving in six of the nation’s wars, dating back to World War II and ending most recently in Afghanistan.
Capt. Char Gatlin, chief of staff for the Department of Montana Military Order of the Purple Heart, said the recognition will place UM among a handful of select universities to have received the honor, and the only school in the greater Northwest.
“UM can fly our flag for Purple Heart week,” Gatlin said. “It’s a huge recognition for the school and it recognizes UM as being veteran friendly.”
In recent years, the university has placed added focus on its student veterans. The efforts have included additional educational planning to make better use of VA benefits, and more academic advisers to work with those vets.
The university also established a neural injury program to screen veterans for traumatic brain injury. The UM chapter of the Student Veterans of America has been revitalized, and the VETS Office has grown under the leadership of director Shawn Grove.
In 2011, the university also unveiled its “Fallen Soldier” memorial, recognizing the 42 Montanans who died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2013, it became the state’s official memorial recognizing those killed in the two wars.
Gatlin said the Purple Heart remains the nation’s oldest military decoration and was the first service award made available to the common soldier. It was created in 1782 by George Washington as the Badge of Military Merit.
The proclamation prepared for Saturday’s event notes the former UM students who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The bells in Main Hall’s tower are inscribed with the names of several of those students.
The proclamation also recognizes the combat-wounded veterans who currently attend UM and support the university’s mission. It praises the school’s “steadfast support” for those who served in defense of their county and fellow citizens.
“UM recognizes the issues facing returning veterans and some of the trials and tribulations they face,” Gatlin said. “As an organization, we’re also here to assist the university in that mission.”
The veterans honored in Saturday night's ceremony include Frank Bernatz, a WWII veteran and member of the UM class of 1953. It also includes Col. John Keefe, a veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and Capt. Sonny Gratzer, a Vietnam vet and member of the UM class of 1963.
Terry Cody, a Desert Storm veteran; Sergej Michaud, a current student and veteran of the Iraq War; Ike Zahn, a current student and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Gatlin, a veteran of Iraq and a member of the UM class of 2003 also will be in attendance.