LAUREL — At least 150 people shunned wind and blinding rain, thunder and lightning and 50-degree temperatures Monday to pay their respects during Memorial Day services at Yellowstone County Veterans' Cemetery.
Undeterred by the unkind elements, they pulled out umbrellas and donned jackets and stood resolute as the Caledonian Pipes and Drums led the process and Kristi Ostlund sang the National Anthem.
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel, Yellowstone County commissioners and Billings City Council members, as well as other local dignitaries, dispensed with any planned remarks hoping to beat the downpour. The service also started about 10 minutes early with the same goal. It did not work.
"On Thanksgiving, we give thanks for what we have," said Larry McGovern, a U.S. Navy Corpsman during Vietnam, one of two keynote speakers. "On Memorial Day, we thank those who gave us what we have."
Memorial Day, McGovern said, is for more than simply remembering. He encouraged all those in attendance to thank a veteran.
"It is the veteran, not the preacher, who has protected our freedom of religion," McGovern said. "It is the veteran, not the reporter, who has protected our freedom of the press. It is the veteran, not the poet, who has protected our freedom of speech."
He concluded his keynote address by imploring attendees to never let a uniformed member of the military pass by without a greeting.
Local veterans hosted services at both the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery and Mountview Cemetery in Billings, the largest cemetery in the region with more than 25,000 buried there.
In an effort to help younger generations understand the significance of Memorial Day and remember those who have died in the nation's service, the American Legion's Andrew Pearson Post 117 sponsored the first Memorial Day Essay Contest and plans to make it an annual tradition.
The goal was to get young people to take an interest in Memorial Day services now so it will become a habit when they mature and have their own families.
Andrew Pearson Post 117 is the third and newest post in the Billings area and has an emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Many of its members are on active duty.
The first-place winner of the inaugural contest was Katie Braten, 17, a home-schooled junior from Roberts, who was invited to read her winning essay at the service.
Memorial Day, she said, is a day when the American flag is flown at half staff until noon to remember and commemorate the honored dead who have been laid to rest in cemeteries across the country, those buried in military cemeteries in foreign nations, those who have not yet come home, those missing in action, those held captive in hostile nations, or those that rest with unknown names in unknown locations.
At high noon the flag is raised to full staff to symbolize that those living will resolve not to forget the fallen heroes that never came home, Braten said.
"But to instead rise up in their stead and continue the fight of liberty and justice for all; to take the torch of liberty from the dying hands of our fallen heroes and hold it up before every adversary of freedom," she said.
Warrant Officer 2 Rick Frye, who served with the Montana National Guard in Afghanistan, was also a keynote speaker. One year ago Monday, two heroes lost their lives, he said. They went missing when their convoy was attacked in the Wardak Province of Afghanistan. Their bodies were later found in the convoy wreckage.
Frye said he recounted the story because what he saw in the wake of the tragedy — thousands of soldiers from all coalition forces ready to help — made him proud to be an American and a soldier. Prior to his combat deployment, Memorial Day was a day to kick back, relax and recharge.
His attitude has changed.
"Memorial Day is their day," he said. "A day to honor them. It is important — no, critical — that we take the time to honor them. We have this day to applaud and thank them for making the ultimate sacrifice."
And, he added, "We have the rest of the year to support soldiers — past and present — for our freedom."