Local News Post-Tribune

Valpo honors fallen military, first responders

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Memorial Day weekend kicked off Friday morning with a tribute to military members and first responders who died in service to their country.

The service memorial outside the Valpo Parks office at Foundation Meadows honors the fallen from World War I to the present.

This was the 21st anniversary of the opening of the service memorial, Parks Superintendent Kevin Nuppnau said.

Nuppnau introduced the featured speaker, Dr. Robert Shankland, a U.S. Army veteran and a longtime dentist in Valparaiso.

After serving in the Army for six years, one of which was in Vietnam, Shankland returned to Valparaiso to practice dentistry.

Veterans Bill Oeding, on left, and Jim Spanopoulos sit and listen during Valparaiso's Memorial Day event on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)
Veterans Bill Oeding, on left, and Jim Spanopoulos sit and listen during Valparaiso’s Memorial Day event on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

“It seems that our country was destined for war,” Shankland said, recounting the story of war after war the United States has been involved in. “It doesn’t look like we’re done yet.”

He spoke of his service in Vietnam and his return home.

“I remember when I returned from Vietnam, at Fort Lewis, we were told not to wear our uniforms off post,” Shankland said. Anti-war protesters called returning soldiers baby killers, criminals and other foul names.

Shankland told of actress Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam to proclaim that all American POWs were war criminals. “I’m still a little bitter about that today,” he said, but the U.S. troops were fighting to maintain the right to free speech. In China or Russia, anyone who protested could be imprisoned, sent to Siberia or just disappear, he said.

Exercise your right to vote, he urged. In the primary election earlier this month, Porter County’s turnout was around 14%. “That’s hardly majority rule, Shankland said. “Through the ballot box, we can throw the bums out.”

Don’t let others’ rights trample on yours, he urged.

Mayor Jon Costas said Americans need to continue to honor the fallen.

Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas, on right, and Army veteran Robert Shankland pick up a wreath to be placed on the Valparaiso war memorial during the city's Memorial Day service on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)
Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas, on right, and Army veteran Robert Shankland pick up a wreath to be placed on the Valparaiso war memorial during the city’s Memorial Day service on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

“It is fitting and it is vital to take time out of our busy lives to consider the many and great sacrifices of those who have gone before us who have secured and maintained our freedoms over the years,” he said.

“Our remembrance should be not just one day a year but all year long,” Costas said.

He suggested three practical ways to honor servicemen and women throughout the year: Vote in every election; respect and fly the flag; and support and thank veterans and first responders.

“I often encourage young people to get into the habit of voting as soon as they turn 18, and the only reason that they need to vote in every election is because many men and women died to give you that right and you honor them by taking advantage of it at every opportunity,” Costas said.

“The flag is a symbol of the noble aspirations of a free people. Realize what it stands for and how many men and women have protected those aspirations over these years,” he added.

Costas gave a nod to first responders. “In this community not long ago, we had an active shooter event that could have been a terribly tragic event in this community. Our police and first responders ran headfirst into harm’s way, not caring about their own safety but compelled by the duty they have to protect them. We are thankful for the outcome of that. It could have been much more worse than it is.”

U.S. Army veteran Doug Pierce reads off the names of local fallen soldiers during Valparaiso's Memorial Day event on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)
U.S. Army veteran Doug Pierce reads off the names of local fallen soldiers during Valparaiso’s Memorial Day event on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

“The way our police handled that reminded me of the firefighters on 9/11 marching up those steps – a great tragedy in doing so – because they were compelled to do so. A greater love has no man than this, that he or she lay down his life for fellow citizens,” Costas said.

After the program, Shankland spoke with reporters about his service in Vietnam.

That was back when young men were being drafted into the military. Shankland was working for the Berrien County Health Department in Michigan at the time and had a high draft number. His boss said Shankland could get a deferment, but instead he received a presidential commission to enter the Army as a second lieutenant.

At Fort Bragg, he treated a soldier so poor that the first shoes he owned were a pair of Army boots. Some of the recruits had received no dental care whatsoever before joining the Army. Shankland gave them emergency care to get them ready to deploy.

In Vietnam, he and an assistant traveled from place to place to provide dental care.

One of his patients wasn’t human. After getting to know some veterinarians well, he got a call. A Marine guard dog, Rolf, had broken a tooth and faced euthanasia unless Shankland could help the dog. Shankland gave the K9 a crown on one of his canine teeth.

Deputy Porter County prosecutor Chris Hammer performs taps on the trumpet during Valparaiso's Memorial Day event on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)
Deputy Porter County prosecutor Chris Hammer performs taps on the trumpet during Valparaiso’s Memorial Day event on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

A fun moment for him was meeting Vaudeville singer and comedian Lt. Col. Maggie Raye, who volunteered her time as a nurse at bases she visited. “She said, ‘You’d like to work on my mouth. It’s so big,’” Shankland recalled.

Shankland had his share of sad and scary moments, too. “The guy that bunked next to me went out one day, never came back,” he said.

“I saw plenty of combat,” he said. “I’d seen Marine Corps, Air Force dropping ordnance on many positions. I saw Da Nang. I saw Puff the Magic Dragon orbiting around, pumping out thousands of rounds.”

“I can remember I was in a ¾-ton truck riding out toward Red Beach and I was kind of a newbie. I heard a snap and I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t figure it out. The guys in the truck grabbed me, pulled me down, and said, ‘Get your head down, expletive idiot!’ I didn’t hear a thing except the snap, so I’m glad that the sniper wasn’t very good,” Shankland said. “Bullets go supersonic and create a miniature sonic boom.”

Shankland offered advice for young people considering whether to join the military: “The pay is good; the benefits are terrific. I still go to VA for my treatment, and it’s the best I’ve had anywhere.”

“The pay is competitive,” he added.

Military recruits are now being honored, too, just like people entering the military. A Salute the Recruits dinner this week at the Expo Center drew hundreds of attendees.

Doug Ross is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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Doug Ross , 2024-05-24 21:36:46

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