Nathan Zussblatt participates every year in Bozeman’s Memorial Day parade, riding in an old military vehicle with others from American Legion Post 87 in Manhattan.
The annual event drew thousands downtown last year. The street was closed to traffic, marching bands played and people gathered to honor those who died while serving their country.
On Monday, Zussblatt watched a much smaller parade from his parked Subaru.
The city suspended all parade permits May 1 due to the threat of COVID-19. But organizers with American Legion Post 14 in Bozeman still planned ways to commemorate the day, including a silent, six-person march down the sidewalk on Main Street and a ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Sunset Hills Cemetery. Volunteers placed 2,532 American flags at veterans’ gravesites surrounding the wall.
As the six veterans in uniform representing the six branches of the U.S. military marched past Zussblatt, he hopped out of his car to salute them. Zussblatt served in the Army from 1954 to 1956 and was mostly stationed in Germany. He said he participates in the Memorial Day parade to pay his respects.
“We made it a very happy holiday, but it’s really not. It honors those who haven’t come home,” Zussblatt said.
A few gathered to watch the solemn march, which was accompanied by a procession of military vehicles. A small crowd met at the American Legion building on Main after it was over. Zussblatt said he noticed not many people wore masks, as has been advised by public health officials. He said he thinks that’s probably because veterans are less afraid of the virus after experiencing war.
Later in the morning, about 150 people stood in front of the Vietnam Memorial Wall for a service that included a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, old military planes flying overhead and a roll call of soldiers who died while serving as far back as the Civil War.
Len Albright, commander of American Legion Post 14, led the service. He said that Memorial Day this year was different for a number of reasons due to COVID-19, most notably that there was not a Gold Star presentation for families. He thanked those who made the effort to attend the service anyway.
Jen Senecal was there to honor her late husband, Gary Rovinski, a petty officer first class in the U.S. Navy who was killed in Iraq in 2006. Their daughter, CeCe Rovinski, traveled from Seattle to Bozeman to spend Memorial Day with her mom.
It was their first time at the Bozeman service, but Senecal said they find a way to commemorate the day every year.
“It’s important to remember that they gave up their safety to keep us safe,” Senecal said.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican running for reelection, spoke during the service, and said he thinks of his great-uncle, who died in combat during World War II, on Memorial Day. Daines said he also thinks of his dad, a U.S. Marine who attended Monday’s service, because he taught him to honor servicemen and women and their families.
“America would not be what it is — it’s a beacon of hope and light of freedom in the world — if it were not for the dedicated men and women who have made it so,” Daines said.
Daines spoke about Army Staff Sgt.Travis Atkins of Bozeman. Daines, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte introduced a bill last year that renamed the Bozeman veterans’ clinic after Atkins, who was killed in 2007 in Iraq when he shielded fellow soldiers from a suicide bomber. Last year, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
“His selfless sacrifice will never be forgotten,” Daines said.
Tester said in an emailed statement Monday that it’s an understatement to say Memorial Day is special.
“The fact of the matter is that every day should be Memorial Day in this country. Because without the folks who serve us, this country would be a whole different place —this world would be a whole different world,” Tester said.
Gov. Steve Bullock also sent out a statement saying that people should honor fallen heroes by supporting the ones they left behind.
“We owe an unrepayable debt to the men and women who died for our country,” Bullock said.
Troy Downing, a U.S Air Force veteran and candidate for state auditor, also spoke at the service and said Memorial Day is about acknowledging the cost of freedom. He said it’s important to remember the names of people who died while serving, and asked those in the crowd who have lost someone to say their names aloud. More than a dozen people shouted out names of loved ones.
“I’m proud of those who were willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the greater good,” Downing said.
In closing, Albright expressed gratitude for the turnout to the service and the support that’s given to the American Legion.
“This valley is probably one of the most patriotic valleys you’ll ever see,” Albright said.