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Judy Langhorst (from the left), George Langhorst and Becky Lourey listen during Sunday's ceremony. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Fallen Northland service members remembered with flags, ceremony

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With a gift of personalized commemorative flags, Duluth paid tribute to eight fallen military service members from the Northland on Sunday afternoon.

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Sandy Pionk, mother of the late Army Sgt. First Class Matthew Pionk, said she appreciated the event but approached it with some apprehension.

"You know it's going to hurt. It's like reopening a wound," she said, following a ceremony at the Duluth Depot.

Nodding in agreement, her husband, Duane Pionk, said, "You know you will cry. But you also know your son is being remembered. This keeps his name out there, so people remember that he and others died for our country and our freedom. That's what soldiers do every day."

Sgt. Pionk, a native of Oliver, was killed Jan. 9, 2008, along with five other soldiers, when they entered an explosive-laden building in Sinsil, Iraq. A 30-year-old father of three, Pionk was on his second tour of duty to Iraq.

Sunday's ceremony was organized by Honor and Remember, a group pushing the nation to adopt a national flag that recognizes fallen members of the U.S. military.

Mike LaBelle, director of the Minnesota chapter of Honor and Remember, said the initiative was launched by George Lutz of Chesapeake, Va., a father who lost his own son to a sniper's bullet in Fallujah, Iraq, more than six years ago.

"He noticed that we have no symbol to represent the fallen. We honor all of our POWs and MIAs with a flag but none of our KIAs," LaBelle said.

Lutz set to work designing a flag that prominently features a gold star to represent the life lost and an internal flame to express the nation's commitment to keep the memory of that sacrifice forever alive.

During a 5½ -month campaign by motorhome, Lutz took his flag to 50 states. At least eight states have officially recognized the flag in the meantime, and LaBelle said the group is on track to see the flag adopted in 40 states, including Minnesota.

The gold-star flags presented to grieving Northland families Sunday were personalized with the name of each fallen soldier, plus the date and place of his death.

"Families consistently have two biggest worries: that their loved one will be forgotten and that they will have died in vain. This flag is here to say: That's not going to happen," LaBelle pledged.

"We've raised enough money to buy a flag for every fallen soldier in Minnesota, and we're not going to stop until every family gets a flag," he said.

Duane Pionk said he and his wife are encouraged by the effort.

"We will never forget our son. He's in our thoughts every day," he said. "I think we, as a nation, need to remember all our fallen the same way."

The Pionks have another son still serving in the military, Marine Special Operations Petty Officer First Class Jeremy Pionk.

Sunday's services were the result of a partnership between Veterans' Memorial Hall, a program of the St. Louis County Historical Society, and Honor and Remember Minnesota. It is the mission of Veterans' Memorial Hall to preserve and collect veterans' stories and artifacts and to educate the general public about the history of veterans from northeastern Minnesota. Its website, www.vets-hall.org, features more than 6,000 veteran stories.

Those who were honored

Honor and Remember, an organization dedicated to honoring military members who died in the course of duty, presented flags to the mourning families of eight people with ties to the Northland:

• Army Private First Class Matthew Milczark, 18, of Kettle River

• Marine Private First Class Moises Langhorst, 19, of Moose Lake

• Army Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Lourey, 41, a native of Kerrick

• Marine Staff Sgt. Aaron Taylor, 27, a graduate Greenway High School in Coleraine

• Army Private First Class Jeremy Campbell, 19, of Cloquet

• Army Specialist Noah Pierce, 23, a Sparta native

• Army Sgt. First Class Matthew Pionk, 30, a native of Oliver

• Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Jeremy Vrooman, 28, formerly of Superior

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