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Learning About Courage

Local author Peter Hilgartner plans to donate profits from his new book to the Injured Marine Fund.

Peter Hilgartner made the decision that the time had come to pay a visit to the wounded soldiers at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Hilgartner, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who lives in Great Falls, said that the visit was one that he had been putting off for some time.

"It took me a while to get up the courage because I had a lot of guys wounded in Vietnam and it's tough to see — I get emotionally attached," said Hilgartner.

When Hilgartner did make it to the hospital, he was astounded by what he saw.

"The courage of those kids up there is unbelievable," he said. "I went in one room and this guy had both legs suspended up in the air, with two big metal pieces in the shin bone of each leg and incisions that went from his knee bone up to his hips on both legs."

Hilgartner sat down and chatted with the soldier, but when Hilgartner expressed his sympathy, the soldier was quick to pass it on to someone else.

"He said, 'Colonel, I'm not hurt so bad — you ought to see the guy in the next room,'" said Hilgartner.

However, when Hilgartner visited that soldier and expressed his condolences, he got the same response — there was no need to feel bad for him, there was someone down the hall in far worse condition. Hilgartner was touched by their concern for everyone but themselves.

"That kind of courage brings tears to your eyes," he said. "They have such a great attitude up there."

Hilgartner's trip had such an impact on him that he decided to donate a portion of the proceeds from his recently penned young adult book "Buckshot and the Boy" to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.

"The purpose of this fund is to supplement the needs of the wounded marines and sailors from Iraq and Afghanistan," said Hilgartner.

One thing that struck Hilgartner in particular, is the fact that the U.S. government does not provide funds for families to visit wounded soldiers at the hospital.

"If you were a wounded soldier and you were stuck in a hospital what is the one thing you would want most... your family," said Hilgartner.

Hilgartner said that he doubts he is alone in that sentiment.

"All of the rooms that I went into had a visitor — a family or a friend," said Hilgartner. "The Injured Marine Fund made it possible for those people to be there because a lot of people can't afford the plane fare, or be able to stay in a hotel nearby... I think it's a tremendous thing."

HILGARTNER STARTED writing "Buckshot and the Boy" a little more than a year ago. It is the story of a young man named "the Boy," who is sent to a Southwest Texas ranch as a result of his bad behavior.

"Everything I do is about leadership, and that's what this story is about," said Hilgartner. "It's about how a guy took a kid and turned him around — not that the kid was all bad to begin with. I think in today's society of absentee parents, some of problems wouldn't happen if they direct their kids in the right way."

Hilgartner said that he hopes his book conveys some lessons about guidance to both teenagers and adults.

"Buckshot and the Boy" is the second book that Hilgartner has written. In 2002 he co-authored "Highpocket's War Stories and Other Tall Tales," a book that is based on Hilgartner's experiences as a marine in the Vietnam War.

"It's the true account of how I got into the Marine Corps, and how I became a battalion commander," said Hilgartner, who earned the nickname "Highpockets" because of his towering height of 6 foot 6 inches tall. "It is the most detailed and accurate account of a battle that took place in the summer of 1967... it was a regimental size battle, not just a regular sized skirmish."

Although "Buckshot and the Boy" is a fictional work, many of the stories are drawn from Hilgartner's ranch experiences in Texas. The books are vastly different in terms of content, but both stay true to Hilgartner's theme — the power of good leadership.

REV. PAUL GYSAN, a pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Great Falls, read "Buckshot and the Boy" last summer when it was still in its early stages. Gysan's wife, who happens to be from Texas, also read the book and offered Hilgartner some suggestions for the story.

"This book really helps us to understand how blessed we are in life through the many people that touch our lives," said Gysan. "They say it takes a village to raise a child, but I believe that it takes heaven and earth to raise a child."

Gysan is Hilgartner's pastor and has known him for many years. He also read Hilgartner's first book "Highpocket's War Stories and Other Tall Tales."

"That's a powerful book in itself," said Gysan.

Carolyn FitzGerald Chapman of Annandale Ranch in Sabinal, Texas also read "Buckshot and the Boy" in advance, and her comments appear on the back of the book. Chapman describes the story as "a fascinating account of positive adult leadership in helping a mixed-up boy grow up."

"This story is well written with humor and skill," wrote Chapman. "In my judgment it will appeal to young teenagers as well as those who wish to explore the past and learn something about ranch life in the 1930s."

Hilgartner said that he made every effort to incorporate humor into both of his books.

"I think humor is important, especially if you can make a point," he said.

Hilgartner will hold a book signing event at Gilette's Coffee in Great Falls this Saturday, June 17, from 9-11 a.m. He main objective is to raise as much money as he can for the Injured Marine Fund.

"I know I have to sell a lot of books to make it meaningful," said Hilgartner. "The only funds I'm going to keep are to buy more books so I can keep this thing going. I don't care about making money off of it."