BILLINGS — A place to heal, remember, hurt, or grieve. That’s the goal of one Shepherd veteran with the creation of a memorial for Montana’s fallen Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and other service members.
That memorial now officially has a home. An empty space at Dehler Park, located at 2611 Ninth Avenue in Billings, will soon become home to the memorial.
"It’s a necessity to be able to have other veterans come here and heal, grieve, honor, and pay tribute,” said Rick Baker, the founder of Hoodies For Heroes."It was inspired by all Montanans killed in action from Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns and more."
Baker served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. When he returned home, he spent much of his time at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. When he came home to Montana, he was motivated to do more for vets just like himself.
“We’re trying to create an experience much like the Vietnam memorial, where you go and you see people having lunch around it or sitting down. Crying, grieving, laughing, taking pictures, really being proud," Baker said. "I feel like we owe it to these ladies and gentlemen who have given the ultimate sacrifice, to at least be able to have their family members, their battle buddies, all these ladies and gentlemen come together and be able to have a place of healing and grieving."
He started a nonprofit in 2020, Hoodies for Heroes, selling sweatshirts to raise money to build a memorial in Montana for our fallen Iraq and Afghanistan vets—one of those being another Shepherd native.
"Staff Sgt. Terry Lynch, who I went to high school with out of Shepherd," Baker said. "(He) was killed in action (and is) on the front of our hoodies."
That dream, while years in the making, is slowly becoming a reality thanks to Billings Parks and Recreation.
"We can’t come up with all of the ideas, so I’m really excited when somebody comes to us with an idea, we can say yes to it,” said Mike Pigg, the director of Parks and Recreation in Billings, on Thursday. "We should have a great memorial like this."
Baker and his team brought their ideas to the Parks and Rec board, which voted unanimously on Wednesday for the memorial to be built at Dehler Park.
"This one checked off the most boxes. It has parking already available so you don’t have to worry about that," Pigg said. "It is a nice, quiet location when there’s not a game going on of course. So it kind of fit the mold a little bit better for them and we were excited that they chose it."
An exact location at the park for the memorial is still being decided. Three possible spots at the park are being considered, all near the parking lot.
"There are no memorials like that," Pigg said. "We’ve kind of lacked that, that segment of the military service that people put in, and we really are honoring that."
Until the exact location is determined, Baker and his team are shifting focus to raising money to fund the project.
"We’re estimating this project rate over half a million. So now the work begins," Baker said. "We need fundraising, we need business sponsorships, we need people buying our hoodies, out sharing."
In the meantime, Baker said he would like to thank Pigg and Thom MacLean for their assistance with parks and rec. He also thanked Eric Simonsen from Simonsen Architect, who rendered the concept designs at no cost. Lastly, Baker said Kim Callahan from Montana-Dakota Utilities also made this project possible.
"I couldn’t be more humbled and grateful to have such a great team around me," Baker said. "I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without them."
“I don’t think we should wait until they’re 80 or 90 (years old) to pay tribute. I think, being a combat vet myself, this is a place of healing," Baker said. "A place to grieve and a way to come and process what you’re feeling."