The number of United States flags ranged in the thousands, as did the number of supporters. Many of these people didn’t know Sgt. Michael Ristau personally; maybe they had met him briefly selling Girl Scout cookies with his sister, Hailey.
Otherwise, the memory of Ristau — who, on July 13, was killed in Afghanistan during active duty for the U.S. Army — was left up to the military and Post 528.
Nevertheless, on Aug. 4, the town of Cascade put on what Sgt. First Class Mike Brecht called “the most well-attended memorial I’ve ever seen.”
Brecht is the casualty assistance officer assigned to help parents Randy and Suzanne. He has counseled the family since the day an improvised explosive device took Ristau’s life, entwining himself with the family to answer questions and to lend support.
Brecht has dealt with several soldier deaths, but said no memorial he’s witnessed received a turnout of this magnitude.
“This is, by far, the largest,” he said. “It was in the thousands. Dang near every house was waiving a flag. I was just so amazed at how many (people) helped put this together.”
Following a procession of hundreds of Patriot Guard Riders, the Ristaus arrived at the American Legion Ballpark Memorial at 11 a.m. Saturday to be greeted by a mass of red, white and blue. Brecht recalled a conversation with Randy Ristau, who said he expected a small, 15-minute ceremony.
“I said, ‘Think again,’” Brecht said. “‘Because the city of Cascade is going to honor your son.’”
He added that the overwhelming turnout made it “very emotional” for the parents.
In homage to Michael Ristau’s love of bull riding, family members wore rodeo attire, and several attendants wore shirts with the words, “Soldier by day, cowboy by night.” Invocations and prayers described the “cowboy way.”
Sgt. Ristau received full honors during the ceremony, including a gun salute, trumpeted “Taps” and Meritorious Unit Commendation presented by the Iowa Veterans of Foreign Wars. The Legion also presented the family with a flag stuffed with three shell casings representing honor, service and sacrifice.
Several military personnel gave speeches, all connected by devotion.
“This moment is sacred in the almost visible spirit of those gone before,” said Bill Donovan, adjutant of Post 528. He added Ristau’s sacrifice protected the American desires “for prosperity and happiness throughout our nation.”
Among those who met Michael, if briefly, was Post 528 member Marty Mausser, who talked about his impression of the man who went on cookie sales throughout town in uniform.
“He was very proud of what he was doing,” Mausser said. “Just seeing him show up there in uniform, it really struck me.”
During a speech, Mausser thanked the Ristaus for “instilling the values of pride and loyalty” in their son. The ceremony concluded with attendants offering condolences to the family and a reception in the Post 528 Hall.
Brecht stated this won’t be the last time he meets the family.
“People say they don’t envy what we (casualty officers) do,” he said. “You’re just trying to make it the least painful thing they have to worry about. To me, that’s an honor. After this is over and it’s all said and done, it doesn’t end. You gain lifelong friends out of the deal.”
The family held a funeral service last week in Washington state that Sgt. Ristau’s widow, Elizabeth, and 5-month-old son, Hyle, could attend. The Cascade War Memorial, which was unveiled on Sept. 25, 2011, currently has 409 names listed, with 24 to add. Ristau is the first active-duty soldier to be honored there.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad had planned to attend the event but was delayed by a storm.