Written by John Plestina
World War II veteran Joe Carson (center) of Fort Peck and formerly of Wolf Point and Fort Peck Mayor John Jones (second from left) along with a military honor guard lay the wreath at the future site of the Northeast Montana Veterans Memorial in Fort Peck Monday, May 26. (Photos by John Plestina)
A Marine Corps honor guard presents the colors at the beginning of the dedication ceremony.
Former Navy Seal Team 6 member and one of the most highly-decorated combat veterans of our time, Montanan Robert O’Neill delivers the keynote address.
Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, adjutant general for Montana, delivers his address.
American veterans who paid the supreme price for freedom were honored on Memorial Day and the future site of the Northeast Montana Veterans Memorial in Fort Peck was dedicated Monday, May 26.
The nine-county project includes Roosevelt, Valley, McCone, Daniels, Richland, Dawson, Sheridan, Phillips and Garfield counties. It’s mission is the planning, funding, construction and maintenance of a permanent memorial to the service and sacrifice of all military veterans, particularly those from Northeast Montana.
Nearly 1,000 people attended a Memorial Day service with several speakers in the Fort Peck Theater followed by the dedication of the future site of the memorial with a wreath laid by World War II veteran Joe Carson, who is from Wolf Point and now of Fort Peck, and Fort Peck Mayor John Jones with a military honor guard.
The group that is raising money for the memorial hopes to have it completed in about a year.
Former Gov. Marc Racicot served as emcee for the event.
The keynote speaker was Robert O’Neill, of Butte, a former member of Navy Seal Team 6 and one of the most highly-decorated combat veterans of our time. He speaks throughout the United States.
He deployed more than a dozen times and held combat leadership roles in more than 400 combat missions.
O’Neill has been decorated more than 52 times with honors, including two Silver Stars, the military’s third highest honor, four Bronze Stars with Valor, a Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor, three Presidential Unit citations, and two Navy/Marine Corps Commendations with Valor.
O’Neill, whose military career was shrouded in a classified cloak, said he was the man on the ground we have never heard of but know existed. Much of what he did was classified.
Seal Team 6 killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. It is not known if O’Neill participated in that operation.
He did play a role in the rescue of the crew of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that Somali pirates hijacked in April 2009. It was the first successful seizure of an American ship since the 1800s. The incident was chronicled in a 2010 book that inspired the 2013 film Captain Phillips.
As a member of Seal Team 6 stationed in Virginia, O’Neill was deployed when the Maersk Alabama was hijacked.
“The hardest part (of being deployed to a dangerous situation) is kissing your child goodbye,” O’Neill said of telling his then 9-year-old daughter goodbye before leaving for the coast of Somalia a little over five years ago. He said he knew it could be the last time he would speak to her.
O’Neill also related a story of stopping at a 7-Eleven store on his way from his home to a base for his deployment and a man ahead of him in line was purchasing a copy of USA Today with the story of the pirate hijacking on the front page. The man said, “I wish somebody would do something about this.”
It was one of many times O’Neill had to keep his mouth shut. Days later he and other members of his Seal team rescued Capt. Richard Phillips and the crew of the U.S. merchant ship.
O’Neill talked about fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and losing friends who gave their lives.
He reminded the audience that soldiers have given us all our freedoms.
“When you’re cooking hamburgers. When you’re out on your boat, cracking a beer, think of them,” O’Neill said. “It’s who we are. Every day is Memorial Day.”
When O’Neill was 19 years old, he visited the recruiting office in Butte, asking for the Marine Corps recruiter, who was not in the office. He wanted to become a Marine sniper. A Navy recruiter convinced him that he could be a sniper in the Navy.
“The easiest way to get out of Butte, Mt., was to join the military,” O’Neill said.
He said he learned during his Seal training never to quit, no matter what.
O’Neill was one of just 33 members of a Seal training class with 180 members who were assigned to Seal teams.
Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, adjutant general for Montana, also spoke.
“It is a time when we commemorate the service of the men and women who have served our country,” Quinn said.
He recognized the service of the 163rd Infantry Regiment of the Montana National Guard that was deployed as far back as the Spanish American War in 1898, served in both world wars and as recently as 2010 in Iraq.
“These are our men and women of the Montana National Guard,” Quinn said.
He reminded people to remember the warriors who fell in the service to our country.
“Their families changed forever,” Quinn said.
“Let us pause to remember those who paved freedom’s path,” he said.
Tom Brokaw, anchor of NBC Nightly News from 1982 until 2004, was invited to speak but was unable due to health reasons. The 74-year-old South Dakota native and longtime part-time western Montana resident is battling bone cancer and cannot travel.
Brokaw’s 1998 book, The Greatest Generation, honoring veterans of World War II, was a best-seller.
Billings attorney Cliff Edwards, a longtime friend of Brokaw, read his remarks.
“This is an honor, not only for northeast Montana, but for all of Montana,” he said.
“When I told Tom about this project, he was excited to come,” Edwards said
Brokaw dedicated veterans memorials in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, La.
“[Brokaw] said if this was next year, he would come — and he might come anyway,” Edwards said.
The Montana Congressional delegation was invited but none attended. Racicot read statements in support of the memorial from Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Sen. John Tester, D-Mont.