By Ross Markman
The mortar rocket exploded and discharged shards of scalding, hot metal about the camp. The blast, from the hands of the enemy, injured six men, among them Havre native Jim Matter.
It was 1969 and Matter was 20 years old. He was in Vietnam fighting for the U.S. Army. Shrapnel from the mortar shell wounded him from head to toe.
"I wasn't even there for a month yet," he said today.
But Matter was one of the lucky ones. He made it back.
Monday, Memorial Day, Matter and other members of Havre VFW Post 497 will honor the people killed in combat, the people who didn't return to American soil. They'll also recognize the soldiers who survived warfare, who fought in World War II, Vietnam, Korea and in Operation Desert Storm.
The day will begin at 10:40 a.m. with the VFW and Canadian Legion assembling at the Vets Club on Third Avenue and Second Street. The veterans will march to the Hill County Courthouse, where at 11, a moment of silence will be held and balloons with deceased soldiers' names inscribed on them, will be released into the air.
Balloons are being sold for $5 by the VFW from today until Monday. The money raised will go to funding a veteran's memorial soon to be constructed on First Street.
"It's remembering all those who died," Matter said. "The veterans are the reason the rest of us live free."
Matter, who spent one one-year tour in Vietnam, will become VFW commander next week, taking the reins from current commander Bob Rice, Havre's mayor. Rice has been the VFW's commander for three years.
"It's normally a one-year tour," Rice said. "But nobody would take it."
Rice is a 30-year Navy veteran who served three nonconsecutive tours in Vietnam and helped repair a ship during Desert Storm. He was only 17 years old when he joined the Navy, 18 when he got to Vietnam.
"There was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of lives taken. If we ever forget, this country would be in dire straits," Rice said.
"This ceremony is actually for the living," he added. "We eulogize the dead, but it's nice to know that we appreciate those who are still alive. Some aren't going to be with us next year."
The Havre VFW, Rice said, has 297 members. This year alone, about 40 Havre veterans died. At 11:15, Rice will read their names.
The VFW will also lay five wreaths at the steps of the courthouse in memory of the veterans. There will be a 21-gun salute.
From the courthouse, the veterans will adjourn to the VFW Club for a free beef stew lunch. The public is welcome to come, Rice said.
After Sept. 11, Rice said he noticed a resurgence in national patriotism. But it didn't last, he said.
"I hate to see us forget what got us to this point. We just can't forget those who gave their lives," Rice said. "I have one friend that on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, it's almost like he's with me."
Neither Rice nor Matter has returned to Vietnam since the war. Neither wants to.
"I see all those things on TV about the guys who go back for closure," Rice said. "But I don't care to go back."
He'd rather focus on making people aware of the sacrifices U.S. veterans made in the past and continue to make today. He thinks the older people already are.
"Even the baby boomers that stayed back, they had to make a decision. They know what this country went through," Rice said. "But it's something some of us really take for granted until Veterans Day or Memorial Day."