BILLINGS – When Rocky Mountain College’s Battlin’ Bears take the floor Thursday night, they’ll be playing for much more than a ‘W’ in the record column.
“We’re honored, honestly, to be able to honor a soldier, each one of us in a different way,” said women’s forward Markaela Francis. “I think it’s really special. That’s why that game has a little more meaning than most.”
“Just to bring awareness to those people and the military that have suffered, have passed on, but just knowing that, hey, we remember them,” said men’s head coach Bill Dreikosen.
Military Appreciation night is now common practice at athletic events. But the mastermind behind Thursday’s idea is Rocky student and veteran Andrew Shiffer, who is hoping to make it atypical.
“As veterans you see Military Appreciation events where, you know, people stand up and be recognized, and then it goes on about being a game,” said Shiffer, who is also President of the Rocky Mountain College Veteran’s Club. “At this event, it’s more of a military appreciation event with a basketball game added into it.”
It will be a night of ceremonies, but unlike most appreciation events, action will extend beyond the court.
“There’ll be veteran’s resources here,” said Shiffer. “They’ll have booths around our track, we have the Montana Veteran’s Meat Locker coming, the Vet Center. Stuff for veterans, that if they don’t go out and get resources, they’ll be there so they can check them out.”
Each player’s jersey will include the name of the military personnel they’re remembering. Rocky’s women will honor veterans killed in action (KIA). The men will play for soldiers who have lost their battle with PTSD.
“We want to be remembered, everybody wants to be remembered when they die,” said Shiffer. “And we feel like this is the best way to keep their story going. I’ve used the slogan, ‘Our game, their story.’”
“Our kids really enjoyed it,” said Dreikosen. “I know last year, and we’re going to do it again this year, we find out something about the person who we’re playing for, each kid does, so they can just kind of read up on it and see. I mean, people are out there sacrificing their lives.”
The night’s goal: saving Big Sky Country and its veterans from one sobering statistic. Montana leads the nation in veteran suicide.
“There’s a stigma about veteran suicide and we want people to talk about it. We want people to be aware that it is a real topic and not just kind of sweep it under the rug,” said Shiffer. “We want to tell their loved one’s story just as much as we want to tell a KIA, because one momentary lapse in judgment doesn’t define a military career. We want to make sure that they get honored, as well.”
“If you don’t come from a military family sometimes you don’t really understand and think about those things,” said Dreikosen. “So I think it really opens a lot of eyes, and we have a lot of respect for them and really appreciate what they do for us.”
The anthem might be a little louder Thursday night, the lights a little brighter, and cheers a bit more lively, capped by a sense of pride for what was made possible through past, present and future generations willing to give all.
Rocky hosts Carroll College in a men’s and women’s doubleheader on Thursday. The women are up first at 5:30 p.m., and the men follow at 7:30 p.m.