A Fitting Tribute to Those Who’ve Served: The Montana Veterans Memorial in Great Falls

By AARON PARRETT

The Montana Veterans Memorial overlooking the Missouri River at the north end of Great Falls stands as a stately shrine of honor for all who have served our country in the Armed Services. It’s a beautifully landscaped presence in a city with a long connection to military service, and it’s Montana’s largest veterans’ memorial.

Military historian Ken Robison of Great Falls, who himself had a long career in Naval Intelligence, speaks very highly of the memorial and of the efforts of locals like former Great Falls Mayor Mike Winters.

“I’ve been impressed with the way it has been run and managed,” Robison remarked. “They’ve been very wise about promotion and making sure they have been inclusive of everyone.”

Origin

The idea for the memorial came at the suggestion of Winters’ wife, Barbara. The two had gone to Helena for a medical visit at Fort Harrison, and they both were impressed by the various memorials to service members in Helena, including Memorial Park.

“My wife said to me, ‘We don’t have a memorial like that in Great Falls. Why don’t you get some of your pals together and build one?’” Winters recalled. “So I did. We went from a group of five or six of us all kicking in a hundred bucks apiece at the beginning to now having raised over $1.8 million.

We have no debt, and we’re not dependent on government money. The Red Horse Squad at Malmstrom and a Montana Seabees Unit together contributed about $450,000 in volunteer labor.”

Winters served in the Air Force (stationed in Great Falls) and also has four years in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Location

The memorial itself occupies some prime real estate along the river, overlooking the Black Eagle Dam and the old Smelter works on the north bank.

“It’s a natural location,” Robison noted, “and there’s great parking with the ball field (Centene Stadium).”

Designed by Great Falls architect Gene Davidson, the site happens to have a military history.

“When John Jay Pershing was stationed at Ft. Assiniboine up near Havre, he bivouacked on that very spot,” said Winters.

The memorial was dedicated on May 29, 2006, though more recently was granted official memorial status when the state legislature passed HB 460 in 2015, and Governor Steve Bullock signed the provision into law. That official designation ensures that the site appears marked on official state maps.

Commemorative Tiles

Beginning in 2009, veterans who are in some way associated with Montana have had their names etched in special tiles, which are affixed to the memorial walls. Over a thousand veterans have thus been honored, and more names are added every year.

One of the more remarkable ceremonies the memorial has hosted recently was the addition of around 200 tiles honoring Blackfeet warriors in 2016.

The special effort to honor the Blackfeet was initiated by then-Great Falls Mayor Mike Winters along with the Montana Veterans Memorial Committee, who presented a formal invitation to the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council (BTBC).

The BTBC contributed $26,000 to the effort, to commemorate Blackfeet servicemen and servicewomen.

“We went to Browning to talk to the Tribal Council because it was our feeling that the Blackfeet warriors are overlooked,” said Winters. “We wanted to change that, and many of those tiles honoring Blackfeet have their names listed in the Blackfeet language.”

The Memorial

The memorial itself is a fitting design to inspire reflection on the selfless contribution of Montana’s veterans: a wall 5 feet high and 50 feet in diameter, encircling a cast bronze Warrior Angel statue that stands over 12 feet high. Montana artist Marvin Brewster, a Navy veteran who passed away in 2006, designed the memorial.

Outside of the central circle is another curved wall that runs nearly 100 feet. The tiles honoring veterans are of black marble and attach to the walls. The pedestal supporting Brewster’s statue is 8 feet high and holds a bronze plaque honoring all eight Montanans who have received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

That decoration, according to its official U.S. government website, “is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force, which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States.”

The Montana Veterans Memorial Association contains a wealth of information about Montana veterans.

All Veterans Celebrated

The site also makes clear that a veteran does not have to be from Montana to be honored, nor does the honoree have to reside in Montana, as the MVMA “honors and recognizes all veterans of all branches of military service to the United States of America, in peace and in war.”

That distinction is important, as the memorial does not specifically honor veterans of any specific war, and it honors both veterans who may have died in service as well as those who are living.

Winters is especially proud of the inclusive nature of the memorial, reminding visitors that it is a living memorial.

“It’s a representation of all the men and women, and even canines, who have served to ensure our freedoms,” he said. “It’s a monument to the idea that our freedom and honor is never fully paid for, and it belongs to everyone.”

Similarly, Winters is adamant on the point that “no one person can take credit for this memorial — it truly is a team effort.”  MSN

The Montana Veterans Memorial Association is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. Tiles honoring veterans require a tax-deductible donation of $225.00. If you know a veteran whom you’d like to honor with a tile at Montana Veterans Memorial, please contact the MVMA: Montana Veterans Memorial Association, PO Box 3524; Great Falls, Montana 59403. Phone: 406 454-9070. e-mail: info@montanaveteransmemorial.org

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