A crowd packed the Missoula County Courthouse on Tuesday and stood in somber silence as a long procession of veterans, family members and friends approached a makeshift altar to remember someone who served.
Flowers were laid, prayers were offered and a few old soldiers and Marines rendered a crisp salute before dropping their hand as slowly as a coffin eased into the ground.
“Every war has its beginning,” said Vietnam veteran Dan Gallagher. “But does it really end for those who return home to live with war’s residue?”
The Veterans Day ceremony in Missoula marked the 33rd year American Legion Post 101 has sponsored the event, and Tuesday’s ceremony was a moving tribute filled with pageantry and gravity.
Gallagher, commander of Post 101, billed the ceremony as gratitude to those who served and a remembrance marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, along with the 50th anniversary of events that drew America into combat in Vietnam.
More than 117,000 American troops would die in WWI and 58,000 would fall in Vietnam. The two wars combined claimed more than 20 million lives on all sides, including civilian casualties.
With the weight of war still in the daily news, Tuesday’s ceremony was more than drum-thumping and patriotic rhetoric. Veterans and political leaders alike spoke of war’s true cost, fought by brave men and women who never fully recover from the scars of combat, even if the wounds aren’t visible to the eye.
“It’s funny – sad really – how we start our wars enthusiastically, almost romantically,” Gallagher said. “We send our young men and women off to battle with patriotic fervor. But it seems to ignore the reality that many of those who go into harm’s way will never come home again, and those who do may change, and not always in a good way.”
Missoula Mayor John Engen remembered his father, a veteran of World War II who didn’t return as the young, vibrant man he was before the conflict. Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss remembered her grandmother, who “gave one of her sons to WWII.”
Stories like theirs weren’t hard to come by, and while many across Missoula spoke of sacrifice and bravery on Tuesday, others spoke of the true toll of war and the promise America made as a nation to care for those who face the realities of armed conflict.
But throughout U.S. history and all too often, that promise has been broken. The “Dough Boys” who returned from the fields of World War I France found no educational benefits or federal support. Iraq and Afghan war veterans found a broken health care system. Vietnam vets faced the scorn of the very people they were sent to protect from the slow creep of communism.
“To this day, the VA continues to play hide the ‘P’ with Vietnam veterans’ PTSD and Agent Orange claims, as well as obstructing their access to medical care,” Gallagher said. “Perhaps that’s one reason why, according to reliable statistics, more Vietnam veterans have died by their own hand than those killed by the declared enemy.”
Letters read from each member of Montana’s congressional delegation spoke of the political will in the nation’s capital to ensure that past wrongdoings are never repeated.
But Sen. John Walsh, D-Montana, and the first Iraq War veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate, said such promises will take more than rhetoric to bring to fruition.
“We do an excellent job as a nation taking citizens and transforming them into soldiers, but we haven’t always succeeded in taking those soldiers and returning them to society,” read Walsh’s letter. “We have to do a better job taking care of our vets once they leave the battlefield.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock echoed that sentiment. The state has more veterans per capita than all states but Texas. Given that number, Bullock said, nearly everyone in Montana has a loved one who served.
“While the time they serve may be limited, the scars of battle, both physical and mental, will last much longer,” Bullock said. “Unfortunately and far too often, we only fill our promises to our vets halfway. I think here in Montana we recognize that’s unacceptable.”
Bullock said the state is working to ensure that military skills translate to the workforce and receive academic credit at a college or university. He said the state also secured $5 million to help the long-term unemployed, including veterans.
Supporting veterans shouldn’t fall squarely on the VA, but rather represents a national responsibility, he added.
“While the professionals at these facilities (VA) work hard and do an amazing job, they work with a budget that’s too small, or a workload that’s too large,” he said. “Our veterans kept their promises, and we need to make sure Montana keeps its promises to them.”
The procession of flowers passed slowly, and each presenter paused for a moment of private thought - Don Micknak, Joe Sariva and Adrienne Dussault to name a few.
Gallagher added that while generations of veterans have returned to find scorn or little social support, they continue to fight for change.
The Dough Boys came home to write sweeping veteran assistance legislation, resulting in the GI Bill. Vietnam vets reminded the nation that when Americans send their sons and daughters to war, they should be received with warmth and recognition when they return.
“Veterans need not mire themselves in a troubled past,” Gallagher said. “They can use it to build from, grow from, and to serve others. They can rise above it.”