Women veterans of WWI—so many stories yet to tell


Courtesy of Ed Saunders

Regina McIntyre Early’s discharge papers showed she served at multiple Army hospitals in France during and after World War 1.

An Army veteran from Laurel has been working for years to prepare for an event that will take place on April 6—the dedication of a memorial to women with ties to Yellowstone County who served in the military during World War I.

But Ed Saunders’ work is far from done. He continues to search for the records of female veterans of the war from all over the state—and just this week he made one of his most exciting discoveries yet.

On Monday, Saunders confirmed that Regina McIntyre Early, an Army nurse who served in four hospitals in France during World War I, was an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in northwestern Montana.

Saunders said McIntyre Early could quite possibly be the first female veteran of WWI who was an enrolled member of an American Indian tribe in Montana.


Ed Saunders

Thanks to Saunders’ research, the confederated tribes told Saunders on Thursday that they will be sending three female members of the Mission Valley Honor Guard, all of them tribal members, to the dedication of the World War I memorial on the lawn of the Yellowstone County Courthouse on April 6. That day will mark the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I.

And in July, McIntyre Early’s name will be added to the Eagle Circle Veterans Wall of Remembrance, near tribal headquarters in Pablo.

The dedication ceremony in Billings, which will be conducted by Chapter 10 of Disabled American Veterans, will start at 10 a.m. on the courthouse lawn, 217 N. 27th St.

It will include an invocation, remarks by Saunders, the unveiling of the plaque, the laying of roses (see story below for details), a closing prayer, a color guard and rifle salute, and “Taps,” performed by bugler Randy Grow. Saunders promised a short ceremony.

“I’m the emcee,” he said. “I don’t like long ceremonies. My knees won’t tolerate it.”

Saunders, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel and was instrumental in creating the Yellowstone National Cemetery in Laurel, got involved in chronicling female veterans of World War I because of a chance encounter in Mountview Cemetery.

He was decorating veterans’ graves for Memorial Day seven or eight years ago when he came across a headstone for Florence Ames, who served in the Army Nurse Corps in World War I. The lyrics to “Taps” were engraved on her headstone.

“I was just captivated,” Saunders said. As someone with a keen interest in veterans affairs and a genealogist for 40 years, Saunders soon concluded that finding out more about Montana’s female veterans of World War I would be the perfect project for him.

After years of research in archives, museums and libraries, he was able to document that 23 women who served in World War I had either been born in Yellowstone County, died here or entered federal military service here. Twenty-one of them served in the Army Nurse Corps and two as Navy yeomen, basically administrative assistants or clerks.

As with the recent discovery of one nurse’s Indian heritage, Saunders is constantly revising the statewide database he has created. Another fairly recent discovery was an Army nurse named Grace Gibson Sullivan. The records he found on her said she was from “Morden,” and he figured it was one of the many little towns on the Hi-Line that existed only briefly.

But a little more research showed that there was no Morden—that somebody had misprinted the first letter as an “M” rather than a “W.” So Sullivan was actually from Worden—one more Yellowstone County veteran to be honored.

“I was a week away from ordering the bronze plaque and I said, ‘Stop the presses. I’ve found another one,’” Saunders said.


Ed Saunders

The bronze memorial plaque, and part of the decorative base.

He has many such stories about the women who will be honored on April 6. One of his favorites is Susie Welborn McCrumb, an Army nurse whose two brothers served in the Army. She cared for the wounded at a base hospital in Langres, France, and stayed in France after the war to care for those too sick to travel.

After the war she worked as a nurse all over Montana, and she died in Billings in 1996, at the age of 103. Before her death, she was thought to have been the oldest surviving World War I Army nurse.

“I’d have given anything to have met her,” Saunders said.

As for Regina McIntyre Early, her World War I records listed her by her maiden name, and Saunders had no reason to suspect that someone named McIntyre was Native American. But she had served in base hospitals in Savenay and Caen, France, among others, and Saunders made a point of looking into the backgrounds of any Montana nurses who had served overseas.

As part of his research, he found McIntyre listed on a 1905 Indian census. He followed that trail and found out she was also listed in the Confederate Salish and Kootenai census of 1905. A search of tribal records showed that she was almost a quarter-blood member of the tribe, on her mother’s side. Her father was a Scotsman.

“I said, ‘I’ll be damned,’” Saunders said. He wrote to Salish-Kootenai tribal members on Monday and they wrote back on Wednesday to thank him, and then on Thursday to let him know about the tribal honor guard coming to Billings.

All in a satisfying day’s work for Saunders, who has much more research ahead of him.

Details: Saunders gives much of the credit for the World War I women’s memorial to the DAV Chapter 10, which has provided all the funding except for a few unsolicited donations.

“They gave up some things to pay for this,” he said of the DAV.

Saunders also credited the metal fabrication students in Montana State University Billings’ City College, who designed and made the memorial’s decorative base.


Afghan vet, shipyard worker will take part in dedication


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Chris Enget, a veteran still recovering from wounds sustained in Afghanistan in 2012, will take part in the dedication of the World War I memorial on April 6.

Ed Saunders has asked two special people to lay roses on the memorial to women veterans of World War I during the April 6 dedication.

One is 90-year-old Erma Klatt, a real-life Rosie the Riveter who worked in a Portland shipyard during World War II and who, later in life, was deeply involved in the St. Vincent Healthcare Foster Grandparent Program in Billings.

Your Last Best News correspondent wrote a profile of this remarkable woman for the Billings Gazette in 2011.

The other is Chris Enget, a disabled veteran who served in Afghanistan. And even though he’s only 29, he’s probably as familiar with paying homage to deceased veterans as anyone in Montana.

From 2005 to 2012, he was the area coordinator for military funeral honors for the Montana National Guard in Billings. He and his team helped conduct graveside services for veterans in a huge swath of the state—from Bozeman north to the Canadian border and all of Montana east of that line.

At one point Billings had 38 soldiers trained in conducting military funerals, and Enget said he helped plan and/or conduct 700 to 800 funerals. He did that until early in 2012, when he was called up for duty in Afghanistan.

He and 145 other Montana Guardsmen landed in Afghanistan on June 21. Enget was assigned to the Military Police, helping to train Afghan National Army and police officers. Six days after arriving there, he said, he was sleeping in his tent when a huge explosion woke him up.

Enemy soldiers had fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the compound and it detonated 10 feet from Enget’s tent. No one reported any injuries, but another soldier, noticing Enget’s limp, asked him if he was all right.

Enget said he was probably still in shock and didn’t even know he’d been injured. It turned out the bottom of his left foot was riddled with shrapnel. It could have been worse. Before that night he’d been sleeping with his head toward the tent opening. That night he decided to put his head at the other end of his cot, which might have saved his life.

“I can’t even say it was heroic or anything,” Enget said.

The base happened to have a doctor who had worked as an ER surgeon, so he did a preliminary operation on Enget, removing some of the shrapnel. Enget said he was supposed to report to the aid station, but he was afraid he’d be shipped out of Afghanistan for more surgery, and he didn’t want to leave his unit.

So he kept putting it off, always reassuring his superiors, whenever anyone thought to bring it up, that he’d have the foot looked at soon. He stayed for five more months, until he could hardly walk, he said.

When he was finally examined, it was determined that he had a severed tendon, along with some other damage. He got home in the fall of 2012, after a troop drawdown that brought a lot of other Montanans home, too.

A native of Rosebud, Enget had gone to high school in Shepherd, and he had gotten married a week before graduation. He and his wife, Jacie, had their first child soon after.

There were some rough times after Enget got home. He had several more surgeries, but there is still some shrapnel in his foot and he walks with a cane. It was a constant struggle, one he tried dealing with by staying drunk. He said he nearly got divorced, but Jacie wouldn’t give up on him.

“Her and the good lord, that’s what it comes down to,” he said.

He’s been sober now for two years and four months, and he and Jacie, a real estate agent, have three children. Chris and two friends have also started a group to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Enget met Saunders back when he was coordinating funerals for the Guard, and in 2011 Saunders enlisted him to lay a rose on the grave of a female World War I veteran who had been buried in an unmarked grave.

So when Saunders asked him to take part in the dedication of the new World War I memorial, Enget didn’t hesitate.

“If they weren’t doing their mission,” Enget said of the World War I nurses, “everything else wasn’t going to get done.”

Enget, by the way, will be easy to spot at the ceremony. He’ll be the one with the very full beard. After he received a military discharge from the Montana National Guard last summer, he told his wife he wasn’t going to shave for 12 months.

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