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Death of a soldier saddens all/Paul Peterson

June 11, 2011
By Paul Peterson - For the Gazette , The Daily Mining Gazette

I knew Robert Voakes Jr., which is to say, I knew his name from games I saw him play for Baraga High School athletic teams over the past few years.

He was among the players on the BHS basketball and football teams when team photos were taken before each season.

His former coaches and teachers described him as a quiet kid who enjoyed sports and exploring his Native American heritage. He also wanted to get into law enforcement.

Robert lost his life last weekend, along with three other comrades, while serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

I also knew Paul Pirkola of Calumet and Dale Moilanen of Tamarack City - both a little better than I knew Robert Voakes.

Paul Pirkola played sports at Calumet High School in the mid 1960s. A tall, lanky kid, he was proficient in basketball. His forte was rebounding and he had a deft touch from close range.

His name had a certain ring to it, maybe because it was close to my own, and because we were playing high school basketball around here at the same time.

I got to know Paul a little better on a railroad trip to Milwaukee in 1967 for a pre-induction draft physical. We reminisced about our high school days and might have even had a beer or two on the old Copper Country Ltd. ride.

He struck me as the kind of guy who wasn't overly worried about the immediate future. But like all young men of that era, he realized the draft and the Vietnam War were looming like dark, menacing storm clouds.

I never saw Paul Pirkola again after that train ride to Milwaukee. I later heard that he was killed in action in Tay Ninh Province in August of 1968.

Dale Moilanen attended Dollar Bay High and played basketball there. Despite his small stature (about 5-foot-7) he was quick and played good defense.

Dale and I were attending Suomi College in the fall of 1966 and played on the same intramural basketball team.

Dale, whose always sunny demeanor earned him the nickname of "Honey Boy" from the girls in Dollar Bay, was a good teammate who always had a smile and joke to share.

He went on to graduate from Northern Michigan University and took a teaching job in Arizona - an automatic bye from the draft.

But he decided that if others had to serve, he should too. So he enlisted in the Army and was promptly sent to Vietnam, where the war was supposedly winding down.

Dale was killed in action in Phuoc Long Province in February of 1972. His death came less than a week after I finished up my own three-year Army tour.

The human cost of Vietnam was more than 58,000 American deaths; countless others had their lives altered forever.

More than 5,000 lives have been sacrificed so far in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many young men and women have come home maimed in battle.

But all of those who made the supreme sacrifice believed in their country and their comrades-in-arms. Their actions should never be forgotten or diminished.

I've seen the names of PFC Paul Pirkola and Sgt. Dale Moilanen on the Vietnam Traveling Wall, and traced them on paper.

Now, there's another name for all of us to honor. Rest in Peace, PFC Voakes.



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