Fifty years have passed since her dad was killed in Vietnam, yet the memory still makes Debbie Reintsma tearful.
“Because I never knew him,” Reintsma said Monday, wiping her eyes. “It’s hard to really talk about.”
Hers was one of 19 Montana Gold Star families honored Monday at Bozeman’s ninth annual Memorial Day parade and a ceremony in Sunset Hills Cemetery. Hundreds of people came to both events to remember veterans and honor those who died serving their country.
As Mark MacLeod played “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes, Reintsma stood near the Vietnam Wall Memorial and talked about her dad, Edward Hagl, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars.
He was 36, a boatswain’s mate, when a mine blew up the supply boat he captained in the Mekong Delta, killing him and about seven other Navy men on March 13, 1968. Reintsma was just 11 months old, the youngest of three kids.
There was such a public backlash against the Vietnam War that their mother, Grace, shielded her kids from knowing much, Reintsma said. Now the public is, she said, “finally giving the respect (veterans) deserve, that they should have gotten coming back from war.”
She said her son, Brandon, an airman, joined the Navy in 2006 in remembrance of her father.
Debbie Bloem of Bozeman, whose son Nicholas, a Marine lance corporal, was killed in Iraq in 2005, laid a wreathe on a stone monument dedicated to all veterans of all wars. Each Gold Star family was given a memorial coin to keep and a yellow rose to lay down for their loved ones.
“This really means a lot to us,” Bloem said, “all our families.”
Len Albright, commander of Bozeman’s American Legion Post 14, welcomed everyone to the cemetery ceremony, urging all to set aside politics and take a moment away from sports, barbeques and flag waving to honor and remember those who died.
“Live life twice as richly,” Albright said, “for someone who never came home.”
Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines spoke about his great-uncle, Thomas Tarbet, who was killed in 1943 during World War II when the SS Dorchester troop ship was sunk by a German submarine. As the ship sank, four chaplains – representing the Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Methodist faiths — gave their life jackets to others and stood on the deck, praying and singing. Nearly 700 died.
“My grandmother never talked about it,” Daines said. “I think the pain was simply too great.”
Veterans read a few names of soldiers, sailors, Marines and nurses buried in Sunset Hills who served in America’s past wars, from the Civil War to Spanish American, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Persian Gulf War.
John Halko played Taps and veterans fired off a three-round volley of gunfire.
“These are always great,” Albright said at the end of the ceremony, touching his heart, “but they’re hard.”
The parade down Main Street mixed patriotic celebration with solemn remembrance. Flags flew brightly in the sun and hundreds of people came dressed in red, white and blue. Volunteers had got up early, Albright said, to place 2,409 flags in the cemetery and 89 flags along Main Street.
The parade had horse drill teams, Vietnam-era jeeps, color guards, trained dog corps, fire trucks, Boy Scouts, HRDC, horse-drawn wagons, Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion posts and motorcycle clubs. The Bozeman High School Marching band, playing a spirited “Marines’ Hymn.”
Riding in a restored 1957 pickup were Gary Shanafelt and his wife, Christine, whose father, a member of the Dutch underground in World War II, hid a downed American pilot until the war ended.
Starting with grand marshal Joe Schumacher, an Iraq War veteran and Montana State University’s veterans services director, each group stopped in front of the Gallatin County Courthouse to salute the Gold Star families.
Six-year-old Hannah, carrying two American flags, said the parade had been “really fun. I saw horses and it reminded me of my grandpa.”
“It was great,” said her dad, Kasey Neville of Bozeman. “We come every year, rain or shine. It’s nice to see everybody supporting everybody.”
Ken Lewis said the parade was “excellent.” He liked seeing all the veterans and “it’s got horses,” he said. “It’s still Montana.”