Valparaiso pauses to reflect on military sacrifice with wreath laying, recitation of names of the fallen

When Reg Gustafson grew up in Valparaiso, he often tagged along when his dad, an Army veteran, went on his milk delivery runs to Dixie Dairy in Gary.

On any holiday honoring the military or veterans, Gustafson said his dad would stop what they were doing at 11 a.m., get out of his truck, take off his hat and spend a moment of reflection.

“That’s what we did. Even if it was on a busy highway, it didn’t matter,” said Gustafson, who now lives in Washington Township.

With honoring the military and those who have served so ingrained in his upbringing, it wasn’t a surprise that Gustafson and his wife, Iris, whose father was a Marine Corps veteran, were among the dozens of people at Valparaiso’s annual Memorial Day program, held Friday morning at the Service Memorial at Foundation Meadows.

A large American flag, hung from a Valparaiso Fire Department ladder truck, fluttered in the breeze against the bright, blue sky, setting the backdrop and tone for a program that included reciting the names of 164 Valparaiso residents who died in service from World War I through Afghanistan and Iraq, and laying a wreath at the base of the Duty and Sacrifice Monument.

Jon Daly, the city’s assistant fire chief and a Marine Corps veteran, started his remarks as the keynote speaker with the oath taken by military personnel as they begin their service.

Daly, who served in the reserves for eight years and spent a short time on active duty, said he wanted to join the Marine Corps to “give back and pay it forward.”

Still, honoring members of the military who died in service was no easy task.

“I don’t know how to do it true justice,” he said.

He told his dad when he was 18 that he was going to join the Marine Corps. His father, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, wasn’t happy about it, but Daly wasn’t sure if it was because he was enlisting, or if it was because he wasn’t enlisting in the Army, given the rivalry between the two branches of the military.

“However, my father was my biggest supporter,” Daly said, adding his dad flew out to San Diego when Daly graduated from basic training.

A military drill on weapons assembly taught Daly a critical lesson. He passed the drill the first time but got chewed out for not helping his fellow service members complete the task. The next time, Daly took the time to help out another officer.

“Needless to say, we didn’t make the cut,” Daly said. “And I realized that no matter the consequences, never leave anyone behind.”

He went on to speak of the heart wrenching solemnity of a military funeral, with all of its traditions and the heavy reminder of the true price paid by those who make the ultimate sacrifice.

The 21-gun salute, presentation of a burial flag to the family and playing of taps bring tears to those who attend.

“It’s such a high honor but it will leave you breathless and heartbroken,” Daly said.

Most people go about their day and take their freedom for granted, he said, but families of service members who died in the line of duty live with that sacrifice every day.

“We will not forget your loved ones’ sacrifice and we thank you for their service,” Daly said. “Their gift did not cost us anything but it cost them everything.”

The Service Memorial, said John Seibert, the city’s parks and recreation department director, was established in 2003 to recognize, thank and encourage acts of service. In addition to members of the military, the memorial also honors first responders and community volunteers.

“For 20 years, we’ve been gathering here today, on Memorial Day, and again on Veterans Day, to honor the highest level of sacrifice,” said Seibert, who will soon be retiring after a lengthy career leading the department.

Memorial Day, said Mayor Matt Murphy, is a time for Americans to pause, remember and pay respect, and honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for people they didn’t know.

“Today we read their names with gratitude and honor,” Murphy said, going on to give a nod to the first responders and volunteers who came out for the program. “I see you and I recognize you.”

John Konecny, a Marine Corps veteran whose family history in military service dates to World War II, came to the program to pay respect to his fallen brothers and sisters.

He took out his cellphone to show a drawing of several hands placed on a casket draped with an American flag for a military funeral and a tagline that said, “Don’t forget why it’s a three-day weekend.”

The Valparaiso resident didn’t need a meme to remind him.

“Unfortunately, we lost a lot of family and friends,” he said.

alavalley@chicagotribune.com