"Thank you for your service."
Those words came frequently from the lips of U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte Friday morning as he visited the Marine Corps League's Butte headquarters — "the hooch" — to present congressional commendations.
More than 50 veterans and family members attended, filling the little building on Garden Avenue to near-capacity. Gianforte, accompanied by his wife Susan, moved between the tables, socializing and making sure to thank each veteran he spoke with. He brought special honors for two — Marine Corps veteran Mike Lawson and the late Phillip "Herk" Lyons, who died Jan. 1 at age 92.
Gianforte has created an annual Montana Congressional Veteran Commendation, a recognition of Montana veterans who served in the military and then continue to serve their communities. Each award consisted of a framed commendation and a U.S. flag that was flown above the U.S. Capitol on Veterans Day. Some 14 veterans across the state were selected for the honor.
Another Butte recipient, Theron "David" Gertz, was out of the country Friday, and no family representative could attend. His award will be given later, a Gianforte spokesman said.
Representing Lyons in accepting the award was his daughter, Deborah Lyons Maguire.
Lyons enlisted in the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor and served on submarines during World War II and the Korean War.
His commendation pointed out that Lyons "was active in Butte's American Legion post for the past 70 years and served as the post's commander. Mr. Lyons was state commander of the Montana Subvets, a member of the DAV and VFW, and has logged over 15,000 hours of volunteer work on behalf of veterans and their families."
Maguire, who nominated her father for the award, said he was aware before he died that he was being honored.
"He won many awards," she said. "I'm sad that he's not here, but I'm elated that he was chosen, and I'm honored to receive it."
Lawson has been active in every conceivable way in veterans affairs in Butte. He joined the Marines in 1966 and served in the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. After his discharge in 1969, Lawson devoted much of his time to veterans activities.
His commendation said in part, "Mr. Lawson is a leading coordinator for veteran celebrations in the Butte-Silver Bow area. He is active in the Marine Corps League, United Veterans Council, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the American Legion. Mr. Lawson is also a Disabled American Veterans driver and chairman of the Marine Corps Reserve's Toys for Tots program."
After receiving the award, Lawson said, "When Greg (Gianforte) called me to tell me I'd been chosen, I said, 'Now that I have your ear, I want to talk to you about the veterans home.' He listened."
Lawson and Lyons both were among those pushing hard for the Butte veterans home proposal, which has been, as Lawson put it Friday, "in a fog" for a decade, as hopes for both state and federal funding have repeatedly been dashed.
Gianforte said he would do all he could to move the project forward.
Gertz joined the Navy in 1986 and served two tours in the Western Pacific.
His commendation said in part, "In 1989, he was on leave in Paris, France during Bastille Day celebrations when his hotel caught fire. Thanks to his shipboard firefighting training, he was one of the first to become aware of the fire, and helped alert and save others."
Gertz serves as a high school counselor to military dependents at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.
Maguire, clutching the flag to her chest after the ceremony, said, "My dad was a Butte icon. He lived in the house he was born in. He did so much for so many in the community.
"And he was always my hero."