MISSOULA - Memorial Day in Missoula remembered the fallen as well as the veterans who fought another battle here at home.
“The struggle is very real,” said US Army Anton Johnson.
Flags were placed on the graves of fallen military members to give honor to their names at the Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery. Some died in combat, some from old age, and others from suicide.
“We have a very large percentage of veterans,” said Susan Campbell Reneau — the daughter of a Marine — focuses on organizing and honoring veterans in our community.
A special ceremony is put on to honor those who have been honorably discharged, but fallen from their battles with mental health, post their military career. Monday's sunrise service symbolized a new beginning.
"And we want to give the symbolism of hope that there is a future,” Reneau said.
A former combat engineer in the army, Johnson now works as the outreach program specialist at Missoula's Vet Center, and his nonprofit guiding vets through life after war. He says that while suicide in veterans is lower than years prior, it's still alarmingly high.
“We're seeing veterans take their life at a rate of 17 per day,” said Johnson.
Expanding Memorial Day to honor those who have struggled with mental health helps encompass invisible battles and issues often overlooked in the service.
“And if it goes [unchecked] — that's why we're, you know, we're having these conversations now because we want to engage veterans before it becomes an issue where they might go on and take their lives,” Johnson told MTN News.
Although very emotional and tough, families that came out to mourn their loved ones who died by suicide say this ceremony gives them comfort in knowing they aren't alone.
There are suicide prevention and crisis services in Montana. If you are a veteran in need of help, you can call the Veterans Crisis Line at (1-800) 273 -8255 and press 1. The Montana VA also provides additional information at https://dma.mt.gov/MVAD/suicide-prevention.
Statistics from Montana Veterans Affairs show over 92,244 veterans were Big Sky residents as of September 2018. A year prior, a report from the Montana VA showed our state has one of the highest per capita veteran populations in the US — meaning about one-in-10 residents are a veteran.