June 7, 2020, is a date in Missoula that will go down in infamy. On that day, when protests were held at the Missoula County Courthouse, someone defaced the Doughboy war memorial statue by spray-painting its base and wrapping a desecrated American flag around its neck.
Violence and destruction have unfortunately marred some protests taking place across the nation as their participants vent their rage against what they perceive to be symbols of oppression. This speaks to the blind ignorance of whoever defaced this historical monument. Sadly, they can't tell the difference between a statue of a soldier honoring Missoula's war dead to a statue of Christopher Columbus. Or do they really care? Will any statue serve their purpose?
The statue of the Doughboy soldier was erected in 1927 to honor those Missoula veterans who gave their lives to protect those demonstrators' right to protest. Without this great sacrifice, they wouldn't have had the opportunity to vent that day.
Each Nov. 11, on the anniversary of Armistice Day that celebrated the close of World War I, a solemn ceremony takes place in Missoula honoring all Montana veterans of all wars who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Now called Veterans Day, each year it is held on the hallowed ground that surrounds the monument of the Doughboy soldier.
Last November's tribute honored the memory of Private John Shaughnessy whose name is on a brass plaque on the Doughboy monument with the names of other deceased veterans. Shaughnessy was born in 1892 into a large Missoula family. He died of pneumonia at age 25 while serving his country in World War I. He died in Archangel North Russia on Sept. 15, 1918, and was buried in the American cemetery there.
In 1929 Private Shaughnessy's remains were exhumed from the Archangel Cemetery and were brought home 11 years after the end of World War One. On Dec. 5, 1929, he was re-interred in Missoula's St. Mary's Cemetery. It was fitting that on Veterans Day we remembered his sacrifice and service to our country. Relatives of Private Shaughnessy attended the tribute. There are two other bronze plaques on the monument with the names of Missoula veterans who died in World War II. Each has his own story of supreme sacrifice waiting to be revealed.
Our elected officials stand strangely mute in condemning this desecration. Mayor Engen has declared that “Black Lives Matter.” I agree with him. All lives matter. But he has yet to declare that our veterans' monuments also matter, and that they must be protected from further acts of vandalism. County Commissioner Josh Slotnick attended and addressed last November's tribute to our veterans, expressing his appreciation for their service. But where is his voice on this outrage?
By not condemning these despicable acts, our elected representatives disrespect all veterans and may be providing a green light for future acts of vandalism. Will vandalism be confined to the courthouse or will it spread out into the community? A prime target for wrath are the veterans memorials and the memorial to our fallen law officers that stand unguarded in Missoula's Memorial Rose Garden on Brooks Street.
To borrow a phrase from Mayor Engen, “care enough to be angry.” Call or email the mayor, the City Council, and the county commissioners and demand that they formulate a plan to prevent these outrages that disrespected our war dead from ever occurring again in our city.
Dennis Gordon is a lifelong Missoula military historian and author who gave the keynote address at last November's Veterans Day tribute.
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