Portraits of Our Heroes

Stillwater Christian students create calendar that highlights stories of Flathead Valley veterans

By Clare Menzel
Faith Blackaby, left, and Jillian Wynne created a desk calendar with stories of local veterans. The girls are pictured at Stillwater Christian School on Dec. 14, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The soldier was marked as KIA, or Killed in Action. His body lay heavy near Harrison Brand’s seat in the helicopter. Brand, a Marine officer, had trained for 15 months in Florida before he was deployed to Vietnam to pilot helicopters. That day long ago, he’d been told he was on a mission to rescue injured soldiers, but amid the chaos, dead bodies were loaded into his craft instead. He stayed the course and prepared to take off. As the helicopter rose, turbulence shook it violently, rocking its passengers. Soon, Brand realized that the vibrations had jump-started his passenger’s heart.

Brand, who now lives in Somers, has only shared “bits and pieces” of his Vietnam experience with others in the years since his return home. He’s wondered whether people truly care to listen. But this fall, he sat down with seventh-graders Jillian Wynne and Faith Blackaby and revisited history, including the miracle of the revived soldier.

Two inspired students of history at Stillwater Christian School, Wynne and Blackaby embarked this summer on a months-long interview project with veterans living in the Flathead Valley. They gathered pictures and wrote accompanying text that includes anecdotes and words of wisdom. Hoping to do “something different,” to share what they found, they packaged the resulting portraits in a desk calendar.

It features Brand, among others, including Lou Heidel, a Marine who has received two Purple Hearts; Kelly Wikely, who served in the Navy as a pilot; and Nate Murray, a Marine who was deployed to Afghanistan.

Brand, who visited the school recently to pick up a copy, said he plans to send copies of the calendar to his sister and his children.

“They were very competent, they knew the questions they wanted to ask, and they asked them confidently and maturely,” Brand said. “They did a really nice job.”

Blackaby, whose mother works with veterans who have spinal cord injuries and whose grandfather is a veteran, said the project highlights both the veterans’ feats of heroism as well as their “humbleness.”

“We knew (veterans) had fascinating stories to tell, we knew we’d learn about pieces of history never explained to us before, and we knew others would want to hear their stories, too,” Wynne and Blackaby wrote in the calendar’s introduction.

Copies of the calendar, selling for $15, may be ordered by email at [email protected] or phone at (406) 471-1177. Shipping is $3, or local pickup can be arranged. Wynne and Blackaby plan to donate the proceeds to the Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry.