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Laying of the Roses ceremony honors service members killed in Vietnam

Correspondent photo / Sean Barron U.S. Army veteran Mike Mraz of Youngstown salutes Ronald J. Puskarcik, one of 104 Mahoning County fallen service members whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in downtown Youngstown. The service members were honored during Sunday’s annual Laying of the Roses ceremony.

YOUNGSTOWN — One day, Joseph Hallas was told he likely would receive detention for having skipped school — until school officials found out why he wasn’t in class.

“He signed up to be in the Marines, and they then told him he could get another day off,” remembered John Jandrokovic, who was friends with Hallas beginning in elementary school.

True to form, Hallas barely had put away his textbooks after having graduated in 1965 from Woodrow Wilson High School before enlisting in the Marine Corps, then serving in the Vietnam War. He was killed less than two years later in 1967 from a land mine and posthumously awarded the Purple Heart for his service.

Hallas and 103 other Mahoning County service members who made the ultimate sacrifice in the conflict were remembered and honored during the annual Laying of the Roses ceremony Sunday afternoon next to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Central Square.

Hosting the somber 90-minute program was the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 135 of Youngstown. Acting as master of ceremonies was Bill Pacak of Chapter 135.

Jandrokovic remembered Hallas as a likeable young man with a strong yet pleasant and “happy-go-lucky” personality. The fathers of both men worked at Republic Steel Co., said Jandrokovic, who also recalled having served as a pallbearer for his friend’s funeral at St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church in Campbell.

The gathering’s guest speaker was state Rep. Don Manning, R-New Middletown, who served in the Navy from 1984 to 1987, much of it aboard the U.S.S. Forrestal CV-59 supercarrier.

Manning shared a poignant story about how his father, Don Manning Sr., had a roommate who loaned his guitar to the elder Manning until the roommate returned home from combat. The two also were planning a reunion only to have it cut short because his father’s roommate was killed in action in Vietnam, Manning said.

“Fifty years later, my 78-year-old dad still has his roommate’s guitar. I asked him if I could play it, and he gave me a look I’ll never forget,” Manning recalled. “It took my dad back to that time.”

He emphasized that no one-size-fits-all description fully can capture what it means to be a Vietnam veteran, in part by mentioning several sobering statistics. For example, about 60 percent of them suffer from serious emotional problems, more than half struggle with alcohol, the divorce rate among them is about three times the national average and roughly 56 percent of homeless people are veterans, including 40 percent who served in Vietnam, he noted.

Because of emotional scars related to what they dealt with on the battlefield, some veterans are emotionally isolated from others, have difficulty with authority and maintain an obsession with firearms. In addition, they may talk freely with fellow comrades about their experiences but not with family members, and such veterans can be resistant to seeking psychological help because of a lack of trust toward others, he said.

“He could still have the war raging inside him. He may cry a lot or be as cold as ice,” Manning said.

At the same time, most are typical in other respects and blend in with the general population, he said.

“They’re the man or woman next to you doing their job and going home,” said Manning, who urged attendees to thank veterans for their service.

Family members, fellow veterans or others placed one red rose next to the memorial as each of the 104 names of the fallen was read aloud. Many people saluted and stood in silence for a few moments, and a few touched the inscribed names.

The program also included a tribute to prisoners of war and those missing in action, with a chair containing a single red rose. The otherwise empty chair symbolized the comrade who was unable to be with family members and loved ones; the rose represented those who kept the faith that the soldier would return, Pacak said.

Also, local artist Quincy Henderson had on hand several pieces of artwork, including one that showed photographs of Abron E. Davis, a Marine; Amalio Gonzalez, who served in the Army; and Edward R. Lozano, who was in the Navy. All three men are among the 104 fallen soldiers whose names are on the memorial.

“They represent three nationalities. Vietnam was not about one set group, but about everybody involved in fighting in the war,” Henderson said.

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