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OUR NEIGHBORS: Veterans' advocate takes pride in country

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Denny Picconatto remembers when “veteran” was a dirty word.

It was the 1970s, and Picconatto, a native of Gary-New Duluth and a Vietnam-era veteran, was trying to find a local watering hole near his duty station at Fort Sill, Okla.

And he couldn’t find one that would let him in.

“It was Oklahoma, and they wouldn’t let a soldier in uniform go into a bar,” Picconatto remembers. “I thought that was about as bad as it could get.”

Since that time, Picconatto has devoted countless hours to improving the perception of, and conditions for, veterans and their families. That is why he agreed to be Grand Marshal of the 2014 Cloquet Fourth of July parade.

“Not by choice,” he laughed. Picconatto shuns the limelight, but now just a little bit of the kindness he has shown to area veterans and their families is being repaid through the kindness of the Cloquet area chapters of the Disabled American Veterans, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, who selected him to marshal the parade.

Picconatto has devoted nearly 40 years to the military and veterans and Friday’s honor is a nice way to cap a lifetime of service.

The start of a lifelong passion

It was December 15, 1964, and young Denny Picconatto was trying to figure out what to do with his life.

A graduate of Morgan Park High School in western Duluth, Picconatto had spent two years in trade school and knew he had to do something.

“We had the draft back then,” he remembers. “Back then it was a choice of ‘Join up or watch your number come up.’ I decided to join.”

On that day, Picconatto joined the National Guard and spent the next 40 years of his life serving the nation.

He spent parts of 23 years on active duty and 17 more in the Guard, including time as a recruiter. He is disabled, and as a result spends most of his volunteer hours with the DAV.

“That’s the one I’m closest to,” he said.

Because he had been to trade school, Picconatto wound up in a type of service that is unsung yet important. After basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and advanced training at Fort Knox (yes, that Fort Knox), Picconatto became a heavy equipment operator.

“I was a wheeled vehicle mechanic,” he said. “I worked a recovery vehicle and I helped instruct those going to Vietnam on how to use the retriever vehicle. Nobody knew how to operate them.”

Picconatto is a veteran of Desert Shield/Desert Storm and after returning from that conflict, he continued his military career in a different way.

“I thought I had retired in 1993,” he said. “I was wrong.”

Picconatto then became a recruiter, and got so good at it he would up in the State Recruiters’ Hall of Fame before retiring as a master sergeant in 2003.

But nobody truly devoted to the military ever fully retires. And as Picconatto soon learned, his skills and talents were soon needed in a different way.

Pursuing a new direction

In 2002, Cloquet’s Guard unit, C Troop of the 1st Squadron, 94th Cavalry, was activated as part of Operation Joint Forge in Bosnia. Picconatto, who was just shy of retirement, noted that the families of the deployed troops had needs that the community needed to meet.

Remembering his own experience after Vietnam, Picconatto was determined that the modern vet wouldn’t have to go through what he did.

“I heard a lot of ‘baby-killer’ stuff,” he said. “You couldn’t go out in uniform back in the day. The military wasn’t popular with the public and the soldiers weren’t treated well when they came home. I thought the unit should have a formal send off.”

And so, Picconatto devoted his considerable energy to making sure that happened.

“I teamed up with the DAV, Legion and VFW and asked for help, and their auxiliary groups too,” he said. “We had six different organizations helping send these people off.”

Once the troops were gone Picconatto’s work didn’t stop.

“We made plaques and sold them for $100 each to help raise funds,” he said. “That group wound up with a formal dinner at the Duluth Holiday Inn.

“I had a group of people who would fix storm doors on houses and do things while the men were gone, wherever they went,” Picconatto said. “I guess people remember stuff like that.

“Lots of these people were civilians who would cut firewood and stack it for the mother who was at home with three or four kids and a father in the service,” he added. “They put garage doors on, cut grass in the summer time, those types of things. I think a lot of people (in the service) were grateful they had a support group back home to help the families.”

People did remember, and they remembered again in 2012 when C Troop was deployed to Iraq and Kuwait as part of Operation New Dawn, which provided convoy security for American soldiers leaving the theater of operations during the drawdown of American troops. Their send-off dinner was held at Spirit Mountain, paid for with funds Picconatto helped raise.

He again took the lead in supporting families affected by the deployment, and for a man who was trying to stay retired, he seemed busier than ever.

“It’s veterans helping veterans,” he explained. “If you want to go with a theme, that’s mine. I’m not really a speaker, I’m more of a one-on-one person.”

Even since the last C Troop deployment, Picconatto has helped the local veterans.

“If you see the memorial in Veterans Park, that was my idea with help from the VFW and Legion,” he said. “Cloquet has been great about it — if you ask anyone they will tell you it is a well-supported veterans’ community.”

In the end, though, Picconatto has helped reach a broader goal of public support for the American veteran. The soldier who was an equipment operator, mess sergeant, battalion operations sergeant and recruiter among many functions in the Army had one more title: friend of the veteran.

“It’s been a complete turnaround,” Picconatto said. “As far as the country backing you, people saw that no one wants to go to war, no one wants to have a war, but they are behind the soldier who has to fight it. People had a change of heart. There’s no sense blaming the soldier who is fighting for your freedom.”

Passing the torch

Yet, all good things must come to an end and Picconatto realizes that his service time is drawing to a close.

“I’m doing some work at Veterans Park this week, the parade, and then totally retire,” he said. “I had a lot of good times. That’s why I did what I did after I retired. I walk down the street in Cloquet and people are very positive. I recruited for the Army and I saw many people I put in as a boy come back after advanced training as a man. That’s a good thing.”

But for his final act in service to veterans, Picconatto has an enjoyable problem. He’s worn so many hats in his lifetime, he’s not sure which one to choose for Friday’s parade.

“I don’t even know what I’m supposed to wear,” he said.

Anything will do nicely.