Thomas Bearhead Swaney steadies one of the approximately 300 crosses he has erected on a hillside next to his St. Ignatius home in remembrance of soldiers who have died in Iraq. Swaney will hold a “peace picnic” on the property this Memorial Day as an alternative to larger events in Polson
Last Sunday, May 20, 76-year-old Thomas Bearhead Swaney ambled down a horse trail on Salish and Kootenai land toward a hillside covered in 300 makeshift crosses. In late 2005, Swaney says he was trying to figure out what to do with a collection of old teepee poles he had on his property.
At the time, he says, the war in Iraq was on his mind. So he started building crosses and pounding them into the hillside, which sits above U.S. Highway 93 in St. Ignatius.
The crosses represent soldiers who died in Iraq: there’s one for every 10 soldiers nationwide, white ones for each Montanan, pink ones for each female soldier and one large red cross for Lori Piestewa, a member of the Hopi tribe and remembered as the first American Indian to die in the war.
“It’s a visual protest against the war,” Swaney says.
On Memorial Day, the hillside will also serve as the gathering place for a different kind of protest. Swaney and other Mission Valley residents have organized an open “peace picnic” in opposition of a much larger Memorial Day celebration in Polson.” They contend Polson’s events—including the creation of “Freedom Day”—are more about advocating war than remembering those who perished in it.
Polson resident Rick Skates claims Swaney and company simply “don’t get” his Memorial Day events. Skates’ daughter, who served in Baghdad as an emergency room nurse for the Army, gave him the idea for “Freedom Day” during a conversation last year.
“She called me up one day from her hospital, and she said ‘Dad, the soldiers over here, every one of them is just awesome. They’re all heroes,’” Skates says. “I got to thinking about what she told me and thought, ‘There’s something back here at home that we need to do to honor all our soldiers there, as well as our armed forces.’ And that’s where the spark started, and since then, it’s grown into a wildfire.”
Wildfire is an apt word to describe something critics say has gotten out of control.
On “Freedom Day,” May 27, school children wearing red, white and blue shirts will sing the locally-written “Freedom Day Song” while positioned in the form a giant flag. Afterward, the U.S. Highway 93 bridge over the Flathead River on Polson’s west side will be dedicated as the “Armed Forces Memorial Bridge,” and six military aircraft, including a Blackhawk helicopter, will perform flyovers.
After that, skydivers will land at a local football field, followed by a free concert and fireworks.
Memorial Day, May 28, will start with the traditional holiday parade, in which U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and Gov. Brian Schweitzer will march. The parade will include another flyover, this time by an F-16 jet.
“That took me about seven months to get in place,” Skates says of the F-16 flyover.
Later that night, retired Major General Paul Vallely, who works as a Fox News military analyst, and whose son died during Army Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2004, will deliver a keynote speech at an event in the Polson gymnasium.
To critics, the events seem over-the-top.
“The activities that are planned for Polson almost seem like a celebration of war to me,” says Finley Point resident Jackie Ladner, whose son and son-in-law have both served in Iraq, and whose nephew is currently stationed there with the U.S. Air Force. “I feel that given the way things are in Iraq, I don’t think it’s a good time for a party.”
Ladner, Swaney and others against “Freedom Day,” say the celebration sends a confusing message.
“I don’t quite understand what freedom they’re celebrating,” says Ladner. “I think it’s the notion that we’re fighting in Iraq for our freedom over here. I have a hard time making that leap.”
Ladner says she will skip the Polson events and instead attend the event at Swaney’s, where peace activists will erect a 16-by-16-foot sign on the pasture depicting a bald eagle perched on a peace symbol. The sentence “Peace, make it happen,” will be written across the sign in bold letters.
Organizers will also host a potluck “peace picnic,” and attendees will help Swaney, who has been slowed by a bad shoulder, to pound in more crosses and fix existing ones.
Skates doesn’t understand the fuss and disagrees with how Ladner and others characterize his event. He points to the planned attendance of five “gold star” families who have lost loved ones in Iraq.
“They were just very honored to be part of it,” he says. “They’re the ones, above all, I think, that have lost their sons that’d be the first ones to stand up and say, ‘No, we shouldn’t be doing this.’ But they think it’s fantastic.”
And Skates insists the Polson events are apolitical.
“This has nothing to do with the politics of the war, whether you’re for it or against it,” he says. “What it’s all about is honoring those that have fought for our freedom and died for our freedom. Nothing more, nothing less.”
But Ladner points to the choice of Vallely as keynote speaker as an example of the event’s pro-war slant. While working for Fox News, Vallely, a Bigfork resident, advocated the Iraq war and accused those opposed to it of being un-American. When he was a former Army psychological operations colonel, he wrote a paper titled From PSYOP to Mindwar: The Psychology of Victory, which advocated the use of propaganda to convince U.S. citizens to go to war.
“He’s going to be the keynote speaker,” says Ladner, incredulously. “A Fox Military news analyst. That’s part of the reason we felt this enterprise was not so much a respectful recognition of sacrifice, as a saber-rattling call to war.”
However each side chooses to characterize the other’s event, it’s a sign of how polarizing the politics surrounding this war have become when they turn simple things like parades and potlucks into a community battleground.