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Area veterans have long lamented that the true meaning of holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day has fallen by the wayside. But there have, for years, been festivities at the gazebo in front of the Missoula County Courthouse and other traditional observances.

Not so this year.

Southgate Mall hosted a ceremony on Saturday and will honor veterans and active duty personnel in a weeklong celebration, but they'll be no traditional Memorial Day festivities downtown except for a simple raising of the American flag and laying of a wreath at the doughboy statue.

The United Veterans Council, whose membership includes representatives from all local veterans organizations, traditionally has either organized or participated in various ceremonies and a procession to the doughboy statue for a few words of observation.

But Dave Fowlkes, a spokesman for the group, said when the group contacted area veterans organizations this year, there was limited interest.

Elder members of local veterans groups either have died or can't participate any longer because of their health, and there's been sparse interest from younger veterans.

"Part of it is the membership in the veterans organizations, but it's also the participation of those who do belong," Fowlkes said. "It makes it really hard."

Membership has declined in the last couple of years from several thousand to only a few hundred in some of the organizations. Of those, only a very few become involved.

"The members that do participate are the oldest members," said Fowlkes. "It's getting to be that their health is declining and they can't attend."

"If you go to these meetings and you see it's the same couple of people who do everything because nobody else can participate or wants to participate."

"We've got several people who say this isn't right, and of course it isn't. We shouldn't let it go by the wayside," he said.

Those who have recently left the military seldom show interest in joining veterans groups. For some, organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are viewed as groups for an older generation, Fowlkes said.

"We might get one every six months who might want to join," he said. "Nobody sees any net worth in it."

But they should be interested, he said. The national veterans groups lobby hard for important issues, including veterans' health care.

"Even though they don't participate, they're concerned about their rights," said Fowlkes.

He's hopeful that those who gather for the informal ceremony at 11 a.m. Monday at the doughboy statue will hold an impromptu observance, or that publicity about the lack of a formal ceremony at the courthouse will prompt more involvement.

A decline in patriotism, especially by younger generations, concerns area veterans.

Lifetime Missoula resident Art Croci, a former World War II prisoner of war who joined the military two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, said he still becomes emotional when the American flag passes.

"People are not interested in being patriotic," he said. "It's sure slipped, that's for damn sure. I don't think it's lost, but it's sure gone downhill."

Croci's B-17 was shot down on his 25th mission during the initial bombing raid of Berlin in March 1944, and he spent 14 months in Stalag Luft at Barth, Germany.

A specific day like Memorial Day doesn't have special significance to Croci, 84. He said if the weather is favorable, he might be just as inclined to go fishing as attend holiday festivities.

That doesn't mean, however, he's not a flag-waver.

"I think we had a lot more feelings (about the flag) than the younger generations," he said.

Ed Kugler returned from Vietnam and was attending Kent State University in 1970 when Ohio National Guardsmen fired on rioting students, killing four.

"I actually felt honored to be an American, however corny that sounds today," said Kugler, who recently wrote a book about his two years as a sniper in Vietnam. "Patriotism is out of style."

Sacrifices made by his generation and the many service personnel before on foreign shores are too easily forgotten or left unappreciated, he said.

"I think it's just another holiday today, unfortunately," said Kugler. "Until you get out there (in another country), you have no idea what this country is worth, and that's unfortunate."

"What I tell high school students (during presentations about Vietnam) is that we've got our problems, but we're way ahead of second place."

Reporter Mick Holien can be reached at 523-5262 or at mholien@missoulian.com.

Missoula-area Memorial Day week activities

Through Sunday, June 3: Displays and exhibits inside Missoula's Southgate Mall and in the mall parking lot, sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History, the Museum of Mountain Flying, the Civil Air Patrol, the Reserve Officer's Training Corps, Army National Guard and various armed services recruiters.

The Museum of Military History will present its largest-ever exhibit, which will include 13 vintage and contemporary military vehicles ranging from an 1846 Mexican War field gun, presented by Hayes and Lia Otoupalik, to a modern U.S. Army Humvee.

Monday, May 28

7 to 9 a.m. - Corvallis Volunteer Fire Department breakfast.

10 a.m. - American Legion Memorial Day parade in Corvallis. The theme is "The Korean War, 1951." The Special Forces Freefall Team will kick off the annual event, first held in 1920.

11 a.m. - While there will be no formal ceremony in Missoula, an American flag will be raised outside the Missoula County Courthouse and a wreath placed at the doughboy statute on the southeast corner of the courthouse lawn.

Tuesday, May 29

2 p.m. - A public lecture about the Japanese balloon attack in the western United States including Montana. "Floating Vengeance: The Japanese Balloon Attack on Montana" will be presented by Michael Unsworth, the history and Canadian studies bibliographer at Michigan State University Libraries, in Room 204 of the Todd Building (attached to the University Center) at the University of Montana. Free admission.

Wednesday, May 30

7 p.m. - Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3596 in Plains holds annual services on May 30, the traditional Memorial Day. The first service is at Plains Cemetery at 7 p.m. to honor all our fallen comrades, followed by a wreath ceremony at the bridge on the way to the fairgrounds to honor those who perished at sea. This year, for the first time, the Clark Fork Community Choir will present a program of music from the Civil War era, when Memorial Day was established. This program will be held at 8 p.m. at the VFW Hall in Plains.

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