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By BETSY COHEN of the Missoulian

Hundreds gather for salute to war dead

Montana soldiers who returned home to live in the land of the free bowed their heads in remembrance to those who did not at Missoula's first official Memorial Day salute Saturday.

About 300 people - enlisted soldiers, community members and bargain-hunting shoppers - joined the 30-some war veterans and their families to honor the sacrifices Montana's uniformed men and women gave during war time at a highly decorated ceremony at Southgate Mall.

After a large color guard procession around the JC Penney Court, which included members from ROTC, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Civil Air Patrol and local Boy Scout and Cub Scout groups, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Ed Sperry opened the ceremony with an invocation.

Sperry called upon God to provide the wisdom to seek out those who are in need and in peril, and recited a Hebrew prayer of guidance.

Then Army Lt. Nichole Meyer stepped to the stage to sing the national anthem a cappella. By the time Meyer found her way soulfully to the song's last line, "Land of the free and the home of the brave," many audience members were moved to tears.

And the tears continued to quietly and spontaneously flow throughout the hourlong event, as speakers took their turn at the lectern.

"We fight because we believe not for the glory of war, but for the prize of freedom," said Alan Mikkelsen, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Montana.

Calling up the words of Abraham Lincoln, Mikkelsen said emotionally: "These honored dead have not died in vain."

For many Americans the remembrance of Memorial Day at the spiritual core is forgotten, said Major Gen. Gene Prendergast, who heads the state Department of Military Affairs. It is the soldier, not the reporter who has given us freedom of the press; it is the soldier, not the lawyer who has given us the right to a fair trial, he said.

Retired Air Force Col. Sam Roberts urged the audience to display the American flag from June 14 to July 4, in a communal 21-day flag salute for fallen comrades, so they are remembered and not forgotten.

"I am in awe of the commitment men and women are willing to take," said war veteran Pete Lawrenson, former Missoula chief of police. "Wherever you see the stars and stripes, freedom will follow shortly."

"I'm sorry kids, but this day is far more important than Christmas, Easter or your birthday," said Mike Halligan, veteran and Montana state senator.

"You can't say the word freedom or democracy without the word responsibility," Halligan said, commenting that the low numbers of people who volunteer time for community service, and the low numbers of voter turnout are an insult to all veterans and the battle they have fought and won for all of us.

"The price of freedom is always high," Halligan said, quoting President John F. Kennedy. "But Americans have always been willing to pay. Why? Because we have the most to lose."

For some, like Korean War veteran Fred Raunig, the day's ceremony filled with patriotism was a long-overdue event for the area's war veterans, each of whom struggle and deal with the annual holiday in their own personal way.

"It's hard to talk about it," said Raunig, who emotionally braces himself each year to handle the flood of memories and losses and the guilt of being alive he experiences each and every Memorial Day.

"But that's what we are here for," Raunig said, "to remember our fallen comrades."

Said Harold Blalock, a Vietnam veteran and member of the Civil Air Patrol: "It brings into focus things you have forgotten during the past year. It's a good tradition all members of our society should practice - to remember the freedoms we all have."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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