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POW/MIA Empty Chair

Military veterans Melissa Smith, Ben Eldred, Steve Wickham and Tobias Kaltenmeier pose near the new POW/MIA Empty Chairs on the Rocky Mountain College Campus Thursday. The chairs and plaque will be introduced Saturday at a ceremony during Rocky's football game against the University of Montana Western.

On Saturday, military veterans who attend the football game at Rocky Mountain College will be honored for their service.

But they won’t be the only ones. Between the first and second quarters, the Rocky Mountain College POW/MIA Empty Chair Ceremony will honor soldiers who have died in combat or were prisoners of war.

“Here at the college, we hold those who are actively serving and veterans in highest regard,” said Jill Washburn, director of student involvement, who helped organize the effort. “This is just one small way we can show how much we respect them.”

Any vet who brings a military ID can get in free for the game between Rocky and the University of Montana Western.

Rocky has also purchased a stadium chair that will be installed on the home side of Herb Klindt Field, as well as a portable chair and a plaque that will be mounted on a podium and brought out at every game. The unoccupied chairs will be roped off and left empty in remembrance of all POWs and MIAs.

Washburn, staff advisor to veterans on campus, learned that the National Football League has a similar program and thought it would be a great way to honor veterans, POWs and MIAs.

She approached the Athletic Department and got an enthusiastic response. The department paid for the chairs, while a donor paid for the plaque.

Rocky is one of the first colleges in the state to add the empty chairs, Washburn said. The school has 50 students who are members of the military reserve or are veterans, as well as 10 faculty and staff.

The Athletic Department will bring out the chairs at all sporting events, Washburn said. This Saturday, members of the school’s Veterans Club will have that honor at a ceremony where the chairs will be dedicated.

The club, established last semester, meets every other week to provide a place of support for vets who are students at the private four-year college.

“They also provide feedback to the campus about what we can do to be more vet-friendly and provide support to incoming students transitioning from the military to student life, to help set them up for success,” Washburn said.

Steve Wickham, 40, of Billings, a freshman at Rocky in aeronautical science and retired after 20 years in the Army, is a member of the club. He is pleased with Rocky’s decision to install the empty chairs.

“All of us know of at least somebody that is no longer here, probably more killed in action than missing in action,” said Wickham, who has been deployed both to Iraq and Afghanistan. “When I see (the chairs), I think of my friends that I lost.”

Tobias Kaltenmeier, 30, of Ohio, also a freshman majoring in aeronautical science, spent eight years in the Army. His father-in-law, a Vietnam vet, lost a lot of his friends in combat, Kaltenmeier said.

“It’s a huge honor to dedicate something like the chairs to them,” he said, “to know we still think of them every day.”

Both men, nontraditional students, say coming to school after completing their military service has its challenging moments. The club has helped make it less jarring. 

“It’s been a pretty big culture shock,” Kaltenmeier said. “But it’s been great. It’s a good experience and I think it will continue to be a good experience.”

Ben Eldred, 29, who spent three years on active duty in the Army and now is a member of the Army National Guard, came to Rocky initially when he was 18 and 19. Now that he’s older, with the military experience behind him, strengthening him, he’s more focused on his studies.

And he appreciates the emphasis Rocky is placing on veterans.

“Coming back all these years later, being not only older but a vet, seeing Rocky incorporate all of the chairs and everything, it’s amazing that they’re doing that,” he said.

Melissa Smith of Pennsylvania, 20, a junior business management major and Army vet, spent 18 months in the military. Closer in age to many of Rocky’s students who arrive at the school directly out of high school, Smith provides a sort of bridge between them and vets who come to the college later.

The empty chairs help educate the younger students, she said.

“It’s not just about their lives here," Smith said. "People are out there making it possible for them to be in school and for the rights they don’t take seriously.”

Kaltenmeier thinks Veterans Day does that for people throughout the United States.

“It’s easy to forget for some people who are not involved in what’s going on, that we’re still losing people,” he said.

Both Veterans Day and Memorial Day help people stop and consider “that there's still a lot of people dedicating their lives for this.”

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.