As it has many times in the past, the community paid tribute to Montana’s veterans in a stirring ceremony at Belgrade High School on Veterans Day.

Dozens of veterans and their families in attendance were honored with cheers, applause, standing ovations, and patriotic musical selections performed by BHS student musicians and vocalists. Lt. Ed Amende, a Navy flyer who served seven months in the Korean War and dropped the last bomb there, was honored with a special military award.

But never lost amid such buoyant moments was the memory of all veterans who have died while serving, including the 13 U.S. service members who lost their lives in Afghanistan in August. Thirteen seats, each occupied only by a pair of combat boots and a small American flag, formed a semi-circle on the dais behind the lectern as a constant visual reminder of their sacrifice.

The 13 were honored during a flag-folding presentation by the Civil Air Patrol. As each of the 13 folds was made, a photograph of one of the fallen was projected on a screen and the service member’s name was read, along with traditional script explaining the meaning of each of the folds.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who attended the ceremony mere hours after returning from a trip to India, paid tribute to all Afghanistan veterans in a prepared speech.

He offered a “special thank-you to the veterans of Afghanistan” and told everyone assembled they would never know how many terror plots were stopped because of their service.

“They kept the homeland safe for a generation,” Daines said. “Their service was not in vain.”

Of the 13, Daines added, “Their ultimate sacrifice to protect American lives … deserves the highest honor.”

Daines said he was reminded on his just-concluded trip abroad that America is the greatest country in the world – something he believes his “colleagues don’t always understand.”

“Some folks have forgotten just how lucky we are,” he said. “The freedoms we have in the United States are truly special” because of the veterans who fought for our freedom.

Daines wasn’t the only dignitary who talked about Afghanistan and other issues of the day.

Montana State Auditor Troy Downing, who served two tours of duty with the Air Force in Afghanistan, focused on the high rates of depression and suicide among veterans and urged everyone to reach out to them with a friendly voice.

“Often this simple human contact … can save the life of a veteran,” he said. “Be that friendly voice – it may save a life.”

Former Navy SEAL, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke echoed Downing’s plea.

“There’s a lot of veterans that should be here and are not,” he said, repeating that many veterans are in danger from suicide. “It’s up to everyone in this room to reach out.”

In addition to honoring the veterans, Zinke told them their service is needed again – this time to protect the homeland against internal division, which he identified as the greatest threat to the country.

“As a veteran we all gave an oath to protect the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic,” he said. “When you signed up, your oath didn’t expire.”

“In a divided world, it’s the veterans and their families and their values that need to reign,” he added. “I’ve been in the halls of Washington, D.C. Washington needs a little more Montana and Montana needs less Washington, D.C., but it’s our country and it can be fixed,” he said.

In a brief video address, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester spoke about the responsibility of American to repay the sacrifices of her veterans by ensuring their access to critical services.

And about the Belgrade ceremony, he added, “Events like this are critical to helping future generations understand their sacrifices.”

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