Veterans receive standing ovation at Gallatin County Fair
By Mike Coil Big Sky Weekly Contributor
BIG SKY – Operation Never Forgotten, a wounded warriors support group for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, brought a group of 50 vets and 21 spouses and caregivers to Big Sky for a week of activities and meetings, July 19 – July 23. This is the group’s second visit to Big Sky. They were previously here for a winter visit in January 2011.
A national organization, ONF sponsors advertising to generate support and attention for wounded vets and their families, and also the Sports Afield and Stream project (SAS), which runs the activities in Big Sky.
The SAS group this year included vets suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress syndrome, double and single amputees, and at least one who was wheelchair bound from his injuries. Another member of the group was blind and participated with her service dog.
SAS organized a wide array of activities for the vets and their families so they could enjoy the beauty and grandeur of Montana in the full flush of summer. Activities included whitewater rafting, rock climbing, a tour of Yellowstone National Park, a hike into the backcountry with llamas, horseback riding, fly fishing, golf, a trip to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, and activities at the Big Sky Resort Base Camp. Most participants took the tram ride to the summit of Lone Mountain.
Other veteran support groups contributed to support the activities. Tee It Up For the Troops organized and ran the golf outings. Bob Jacklin of West Yellowstone spent a morning with the vets teaching them to fly cast before they went fishing with guides from Warriors and Quiet Waters on the Yellowstone River.
On Friday, July 20, SAS held a banquet for the participants, which included a drawing for guided hunts, a pack trip, a hot air balloon ride and guided fishing. Comedian Mark Sweeney emceed, and Pulitzer Prize winning author David Phillips spoke to the veterans about his book on combat experiences in Iraq. Video messages from Lee Greenwood, Tom Brokaw, J.R. Martinez, John Elway, Taylor Swift, Randy Couture, Sen. John Tester, Dennis Miller and Ted Nugent were presented, and Adele Morgan and Devora provided musical entertainment. A silent auction with items donated by local merchants included a football autographed by John Elway of the Denver Broncos, which sold for $600.
The following day, the veterans attended the Gallatin County Fair and rodeo, where they boarded horse drawn wagons and rode into the arena carrying the American flag for a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” by Adele Morgan. The Bozeman crowd gave them a standing ovation.
On Sunday evening, the group returned to Bozeman for a dinner sponsored by the American Legion Post of Bozeman. The menu included elk spaghetti and rattlesnake chili. Local snake wrangler Roger Siemens provided the rattlesnake meat. The chili had a unique flavor and was surprisingly good. Siemens presented a program with Dr. Greg Moore, MD, an ER physician from Dillon, complete with a slide show and a display of live rattlers. Several people who were squeamish about snakes had to leave the room when the live rattlers came out.
Many of the participants said they were impressed by Montana’s beauty and variety of outdoor recreation. By the end of the week, the group was tired, sunburned and delighted by the Big Sky hospitality and warmth. Some were already planning to return.
Big Sky Resort housed the warriors at no cost and gave them the ballroom facilities as a headquarters for the duration of their stay. Other local businesses supported SAS by helping with travel expenses, food and activity costs. A volunteer committee of vets and community members organized the event and made sure it ran smoothly during the week. Stacie Johnson, a therapist from Denver, donated her time to counsel the vets as needed whenever there was a flashback or meltdown.
SAS is planning future events in the area. For more information, to donate or volunteer, visit operationneverforgotten.org.