Big Sky Supports its Veterans

A Montana veteran and longtime supporter of VVMF was in D.C. this week and finally got a chance to chat with Jan Scruggs.

Dan Gallagher, head of the American Legion Forgotten Warriors Post 101 in Missoula, was a driving force in creating that post in 1981. The post raised a significant amount of funds to support the construction of The Wall in the early 1980s.
He visited The Wall during his visit and spent a few minutes talking to Jan about their experiences in Vietnam, what Vietnam looks like now and veterans and life in Montana.

In August, Dan hosted The Wall That Heals in Missoula on just a few weeks notice. He and the Missoula community raised money to support the visit, got tons of media coverage and pulled in lots of visitors from the community. Many of those visitors were younger than The Wall itself and it was great to watch the Vietnam veterans interact with the young people, especially the handful of University of Montana ROTC students who did most of the heavy lifting in setting up TWTH. The local minor league baseball team, the Missoula Osprey, also hosted the museum portion of TWTH the night it arrived, played VVMF videos during the game and did a special military appreciation night in our honor.

The population of Montana hovers around 1 million people, but the percentage of veterans per capita is one of the highest in the country. There are 266 names on The Wall who listed Montana as their home of record. We currently have collected less than half of their photos.

In September, a VVMF staffer was in Great Falls and Kalispell, Montana to meet with veterans groups and tell them about our efforts to collect photos and raise money to build the Education Center where the photos will be displayed.

Local media covered the meeting, the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce graciously offered a meeting space, as well as coffee and cookies, and representatives from both of the state’s U.S. senators attended and offered to help spread the word.

Here are a few of the stories our press/communications manager saw at TWTH in Missoula in August:

One man visiting TWTH was a Marine in Vietnam. He had been to The Wall in D.C. and also seen the traveling memorials about a dozen times. But when he walked up to our museum truck, he saw two photos of men he was with when they were killed in Vietnam. He broke down in tears. Dan Little, who travels with TWTH is also a Vietnam vet, saw him and walked over to hug him.

Later, I was standing at The Wall, helping someone else find a name location, when the man walked over to me. We got to talking and he told me about why he had been crying. Then he told me about another friend of his on The Wall. In 1967, author Bernard Fall was revisiting the road he had immortalized in his 1961 book, Street Without Joy. The Marine had just come in from 10 days in the field and was exhausted, but he was given the assignment to escort Fall on a patrol that was about to leave. The Marin’s buddy spoke up and took the assignment so the Marine could rest.

The author and Gunnery Sgt. Bryon G. Highland was killed by a landmine in Thua Thien, South Vietnam on that patrol.
The Marine looked at me and said, “It should have been me.”

There were tears in his eyes and it was all I could do not to burst into tears. He told me he had been a combat correspondent so we talked about that since I had been a journalist.

Not long after the Marine left, I was telling one couple about the history of The Wall and talking about veterans issues with them when another man asked for my help in finding a name. I walked him to the panel, then asked the name to find the line. I pointed to it and then turned around. The man was in tears looking at the name. I think it was his first time to see it. He walked up to The Wall, touched the name and just knelt down in tears. I hung back a bit and waited for him. The woman he was with asked me about name rubbings and I did one for him when I got back to D.C. and mailed it back to him. He left a patch that he had found from his unit at The Wall and came back later to stand by the name of his friend. The next day, I saw him back in the same spot and he had brought another patch. We stood quietly for awhile and he told me stories about his time in Vietnam and both of us cried. I promised him I would take the patches back to D.C. and place them at The Wall near his friends name and I did.

The Friday night ceremony was incredible. Easily more than 100 people came out to hear veterans speak, including Dan Gallagher, the Montana attorney general and the former commander of the Montana National Guard. The state officer who heads veterans affairs also attended and those three laid special objects at The Wall. During songs from the era, remarks and moments, there were smiles and tears. Family members laid flowers at The Wall, including one woman who lost her husband to the war. Her and I chatted for awhile and then she shook my hand and said, “I have to go see my husband now.” She came back to me later and asked how she could support our effort to build the Education Center that will feature photos of all the names on The Wall. She put $30 in my hand and asked that we make sure it gets built.