MARTIN J. KIDSTON Independent Record HELENA (AP)
With her black shoes and freckled face, her blonde hair almost red in the sun, little Riley Ehret stood quietly outside the Capitol, taking in the moment with her wide, green eyes. The 7-year-old was wearing the same black dress and the same blue ribbon she had selected for her father's funeral. Her smile, however, was something new. And so was the flag clutched tightly in her arms and the Army Commendation Medal pinned upon her dress. "Your father's attention to detail and situational awareness allowed his platoon to effectively accomplish all assigned missions," said a soldier, standing before the girl as he read her father's commendation. "His performance reflects great credit upon himself, the 116th Brigade Combat Team, Task Force Liberty and the United States Army." Riley's father, Spc. Travis T. Ehret, earned the commendation as an automatic rifleman serving with the Montana National Guard's 1-163rd Infantry Battalion in Iraq. Ehret served three tours in the war, standing up for the principles he believed in and the country he loved. Then he came home, where he Died of injuries suffered in a Helena bar fight that occurred on June 20 the day before Father's Day. It was why, when Sunday came when Father's Day arrived Ehret didn't return Riley's call. It was why the two would never speak again. But Riley wouldn't know that for nearly two weeks, not until a sheriff's deputy came knocking at the door in Belgrade. The officer told Riley's mother, Iselin Jensen, that her ex-husband Riley's father had been critically injured in a bar fight and wasn't expected to recover. Breaking the news to Riley was the hardest part. "I just looked at her and said, 'Daddy got in a fight, and it's not very good, and it doesn't look like he's going to make it,'" Jensen said. "I told her, 'He'll probably end up with the angels.' We didn't know that it happened over the Father's Day weekend. Riley didn't know why he didn't call and she was upset." Days after the fight, Ehret was flown from Helena to a Billings hospital where he died on July 2 at 10:59 a.m. He was interred at the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery and remembered as a loving son and father, a man of his word who was proud to defend America's freedom on the battlefield. That day, the flag went to Ehret's mother. Riley didn't have her father, and she wanted a flag of her own to remember him by. "Her dad died off duty, and the parents are divorced, so by protocol, the flag has to go to (Ehret's) mother," said Denny Lenoir, coordinator of the state Honor Guard. "Riley was extremely sad that she didn't get to talk to her dad on Father's Day, and that she didn't get a flag at his funeral." But Lenoir set out to change that, and on Wednesday, the state Honor Guard came to attention on the steps of the Capitol to perform a ceremony the soldiers would later describe as touching. With their brass buttons glinting in the morning sun, Spc. Moe Mayhew, Warrant Officer Lance Heppner, and Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Schaan unfolded the flag and ran it up the pole. Holding Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger's hand, her other placed over her heart, Riley watched the ceremony with pride and wonder, her freckled face warmed by the sun. The soldiers then folded the flag, perfecting each crease, and presented it to the girl with an unflinching salute. "This flag of the United States of America was flown over the state Capitol of Helena, Montana, on Wednesday, August fifth, 2009, in honor of your father for his dedication and faithful service to the United States of America while serving in the United States Army," Bohlinger told the girl. "The people of Montana are extremely proud of your father for his courage, his bravery and his commitment to the peace of this world and to the safety of our people." With the video cameras crowding around, the reporters standing before her, Riley didn't smile. As Bohlinger held her hand, she looked at her shoes and simply said, in the smallest of voices, "My dad loved me." As for the flag she wanted so dearly? She clutched it in her arms the way most girls hold a teddy bear. "I'll take care of it," she said, following Bohlinger on a tour of the Capitol. "I'll put it somewhere in the house. When I get there, I'll pick out a place."