Pionke shares what Memorial Day means to him

Shawano County Veterans Service Director served for 23 years in United States Air Force
Luke Reimer

The Birnamwood American Legion Post 341 held its annual Memorial Day program again this year to honor those who have fallen.

Starting at 7 a.m., American Legion members made stops at local cemeteries to pay their respects to local veterans who have passed away. After going to cemeteries in Norrie, Birnamwood and Aniwa, they held a program at Birnamwood Elementary/Middle School. Flags of the United States of America, the state of Wisconsin and the American Legion were presented before Shawano County Veterans Service Director Paul Pionke was asked to say a few words as the guest speaker.

During his speech, Pionke gave a little background on Memorial Day and what it means for those who have served the United States of America.

“Today we are celebrating Memorial Day and traditionally this weekend is the kickoff of summer, barbeques, camping, traveling and various get-together,” said Pionke. “It tends to be a three-day weekend that not too many Americans think about.”

He went on to say that the thought of Memorial Day is more than just a holiday weekend for those who have served and those who have seen family members and friends serve.

“This weekend we often hear people talk about being patriotic, but what does it mean to be patriotic?” said Pionke. “Some words that come to mind when thinking about patriotism are loyalty and nationalism.”

Pionke broke down what loyalty and nationalism mean to him.

“Loyalty — imagine your pet dog running up to you at the end of a long workday or defending you against a predator. Or standing strong in your faith or beliefs,” said Pionke. “Nationalism — it could also be called independence, such as having a choice of life, liberty and freedom of choice. The choice to be anybody that you want to be.”

According to Pionke, patriotism is something that cannot be bought, but rather fought for and defended.

“Patriotism is reflected by many military members who have made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Pionke. “Today we remember our deceased members with honor. We recall those who made the ultimate sacrifice in dying for our country.”

Pionke said while many view this weekend as that three-day weekend and view it ending Monday night, veterans will continue to remember those who gave their lives to protect the citizens of the United States throughout their lives.

“Some died of natural causes, some sacrificed their lives in battle and others could not handle the mental demons and unfortunately committed suicide,” said Pionke.

He also recalled his life starting in childhood coming to the current times of working in the Shawano County Veterans Affairs office.

“Having grown up in a patriotic family, my late father was a Korean War veteran who instilled in my three sisters and brother many values of patriotism, loyalty and faith,” said Pionke. “My dad served as a Navy medic who saw first hand the results of battle injuries. I am a retired Air force veteran of 23 years of active duty. If someone told me back in 1987 when I joined the Air force that if I served 23 years, I would have laughed at them. I was convinced that I was going to do four years. I reenlisted several times and was able to succeed by the outstanding support of my family. While stationed in Germany, I witnessed and responded to two major aircraft tragedies, so I could relate to the stories of mass casualties.”

Pionke said that when he was deployed to Kuwait in 1990 and called it an “eye opener.”

“The Gulf War ended in 1991 and the buildings that were damaged by airstrikes are monuments to this day,” said Pionke. “The government could have easily torn them down but didn’t as a reminder to their citizens of possible war.”

Pionke ended his speech saying it is important to know the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but all together veterans should always be remembered.

“The purpose for today and this weekend is to show respect for the fallen veterans and Veterans Day is for the living veterans, however any day is a good day to thank a veteran for their service,” said Pionke.