BOZEMAN — If you watch golf it’s pretty normal to see a golf bag. A device just meant to hold their clubs -- it has no other meaning. For the Bozeman Gallatin Raptors, they have two camouflage bags called the ‘honor bags,’ which have a much deeper meaning.
“It even pushes us a little bit on how we act for tournaments and practice -- to prove ourselves worthy of carrying the bag,” said Gallatin senior Jordan Verge.
For six weeks the Gallatin Raptors golf players would hop on a phone call with retired Army command sergeant major Skip Soderholm. Each week he would tell them a story of a soldier he knew who gave their life for our country.
“They were on the ground walking towards the ground and there was a machine gun position that opened up on the troops, but he got hit,” Soderholm said in a phone call to the team in a practice before the District Invitational in Great Falls last week. He was describing what happened to sergeant first class Aaron Grider. He gave his life a little over 10 years ago in the Kunduz Province of Afghanistan.
This year the Raptors have carried around two camouflage 'Honor Bags', one for the boys and one for the girls. Attached to the bag was a picture and a write up of one of those soldiers that Soderholm knew who made the ultimate sacrifice. Although the bag made it to almost every player on the team, you had to earn it with hard work and good sportsmanship.
“As a team and coaches, everything, I’m just honored to be able to carry their names with us," said Jordan Verge, who earned the bag for his last ever high school match, the State AA golf tournament. "It’s a huge blessing for sure.”
The idea was thought of by head coach Matt Clark. He met Soderholm this past summer and the two thought it would be a great idea to do with the players. He was inspired by Brittney Bayse, the MSU head golf coach, who does something similar.
“I see kids getting super upset over missing a putt and so it really puts things into perspective," said Clark. "I think they appreciate things outside of their own world right now.”
Residing in North Carolina, Soderholm just happened to be in Montana for one of the last Raptors practices to talk to them in person this Tuesday before they begin their quest for a state title on Thursday and Friday.
“We talked about who they were, they’re family, the people that loved them, the people that missed them -- the sacrifice they made," said Soderholm. "I think it was really important. I think the students got a lot out of it. It was pretty good.”
Soderholm lost more than seven people in his special forces unit over 20 years. But the seventh and last one he would talk to the team about was Master Sergeant Jonathan Dunbar, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Manbij, Syria in 2018.
“As they were walking to the target he was carrying a charge, an explosive charge, explosive device -- we usually use those to enter a building and it detonated prematurely. He died and another fellow teammate from the British Army passed as well -- was in the vicinity of that,” Soderholm told the players.
As Clark said before it was about putting things in perspective.
“All these kids grew up after 9/11," said Soderholm. "They weren't around like we were when it happened. I think it’s really important that they know that people died for their freedom and I think it’s a really good program.”
The players were grateful to hear the story in person this week.
“It’s really impactful to me and it makes me remember me a lot more," said freshman Addison Bleile, who hopes they continue to remember those who have fallen as a team after this year.
“I’m just honored to be able to do this," said Verge. "(It shows) who our coaches are and we definitely have a higher purpose and that’s not just how we play but who we are as people.”
The retired command sergeant major also wanted to instill on the team three core values his unit held. Adaptability. Commitment and trust.
“We were expected to do things that nobody else could do. A lot of it was dangerous, but we had to hold each other accountable," Soderholm said to the group.
"We expected that out of all the members of our organization," Soderholm said. "I thought it was important just to talk about that with these young players. I think that it’s important to understand that they have to hold each other accountable as a team.”
Over the past two months it’s been an honor for the students to learn the names of the fallen heroes and to hear from Soderholm. The same goes for him to keep the names alive of people he was close to.
“We talked about seven heroes, but I hope you guys get to keep those placards and those pictures and think about them and their families and what they sacrificed for the country and for you," Soderholm said to the group before he departed.