Arlee Veterans multitask on Veterans Day
ARLEE – Members of American Legion Post 113 gave Veterans Day double duty. During the holiday, they cooked a spaghetti dinner to raise funds to send two high school students to Helena for a week when school lets out to learn about government.
“We are doing two things with one dinner,” Post 113 Chaplin Scott McClure said. “We are honoring the veterans and raising money for the kids.”
At a table in the Arlee Senior Center, several veterans drank coffee and reminisced about the time they spent in the military while they waited for the public to show up for the dinner they planned. Ronnie Tonasket remembered being on a Navy ammunition ship during Vietnam.
“For a 19-year-old kid, I don’t know if I’d call it fun,” he said. “It was my job to re-arm battle ships as needed. It was ungodly hot. The decks on the ship got so hot they would burn through our work boots, but we worked so hard we would forget about how hot our boots were.”
Tonasket remembered loading bombs onto other ships.
“The ships would line up side by side at 120 feet apart and stay at the same speed. We had to be very careful. You didn’t want to get knocked overboard or have a 500-pound bomb fall on you,” he said.
Swimming was a way to endure the heat on his days off.
“I got to go swimming off the coast of Vietnam. It was great but we had to watch out for sharks,” Tonasket said.
Many veterans talked about their jobs in the service but they got quiet when asked about combat.
“Most veterans don’t really talk too much about it,” McClure said. “Most people don’t understand. We will talk in generalities, but as far as combat itself, it’s something you don’t want to talk about.”
Carmen McClure did explain how he got a Purple Heart in Vietnam with the Marine Corps, but he talked about the facts with few details.
“I was on patrol and walked into an ambush,” he said. “I was shot in the shoulder. I spent 93 days in hospitals from Japan to California.”
He talked at length about the purpose of the legion, saying American Legion groups were created by veterans as support groups so that veterans could have a place to talk about what they’ve been through.
“The legion provides moral support for veterans,” he said. “Veterans coming back need someone to talk to. They need someone that has been there and done that, and that includes our younger guys.” Alex Felix was one of the ‘younger guys’ sitting at the end of the table. He served in Desert Storm.
Gordon Fyant served on an aircraft carrier in the Navy during Vietnam. He said he volunteered before he could be drafted to give himself a sense of control.
“I wanted to do it my way,” he said. “My number was going to be up so I volunteered before they could tell me I had to go.”
Many of the military members from Arlee are Native American.
“I think it’s become part of our culture to be patriotic and serve this country,” he said. “It starts with one person in the family saying they are going to go, then everyone goes and the next generation keeps going.”
A few current legion members served in World War II, including Harold Tanner, Eneas Vanderburg and Alvin (Snuse) McClure. Snuse, 91, was at the Veterans Day dinner. He sat down with a hot cup of tea. He said he remembers spending 35 months of his life in the Army after being drafted at 19. He was in the historic Guadalcanal battle and several others.
“I spent 30 months and 18 days in the Pacific,” he said. “I was in for 35 months right down to the day.”
Post 113 Adjunct Bill Orr found a career in the military. He spent 22 years in the Army with two years in Vietnam and one year in Saudi Arabia. Most of his time, he was stationed near Germany where he coordinated flight plans, but he flew every chance he could get.
During the Veterans Day dinner, he could be found cooking the hamburger for the spaghetti sauce. He explained some of the projects the legion does including decorating the cemetery during Memorial Day, replacing worn out flags and putting up white crosses on the highway.
“Each legion does something different. The St. Ignatius post has the Mission Valley Honor Guard. We do a lot of different things. Today, we are raising money to defray the cost for one boy and one girl to go to state.”
Several American Legion posts help send young people to the weeklong American Girls State and Boys State program. Last year, the legion sent Zach Felsman and Elizabeth Morigeau.
“We think it’s important for them to learn about the American government,” he said.
Elizabeth and Zach went to the Veterans Day dinner to talk about their experiences at state and to get community involvement for the next group of students. Elizabeth later explained what she did at Girls State.
“It’s where independent minds come up with a lot of discussion topics together,” she said. “We ran our own government. We proposed bills and ran our own legislation. They taught us how the election process works. We learned from a lot of speakers. We also went to museums. It was important in my high school career to go to state.”