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Vietnam Brotherhood pays tribute to veteran

By Staff | Feb 12, 2020

Last Friday at Eco Park in Cape Coral, members of the Vietnam Brotherhood and loved ones celebrated the life of a fellow veteran who passed away in late 2019.

Staff Sgt. Gerald “Jerry” Kmieciak, 74, was memorialized by his military brothers and sisters at Cape Coral’s most vibrant and historic veteran dedication area in a ceremony that captured all that the Vietnam veteran meant to those in his life.

Kmieciak joined the armed forces and was assigned to the Andersen Air Force base in Guam. He was wounded in 1968 and was later awarded the Purple Heart. He remained an active member of the Vietnam Brotherhood until his passing.

“Digger was my executive officer for three years and was a great asset to the club,” said Eddy Bellefeuille, former commanding officer of the Vietnam Brother-hood. “He was a true original, since he did things only his way. The funeral service was fitting for Jerry, since it was small in number, but huge in meaning.”

The service was initiated by the brotherhood and a brick was purchased to memorialize Kmieciak forever at Eco Park, depicting names, rank and branch of service they were in during the Vietnam War.

A procession of flags that included the United States flag, Vietnam Brotherhood flag, POW/MIA flag and the US Air Force flag were marched to the memorial site, by members of the Brotherhood Honor Guard — John Crowley, John Flitcraft, Rick Reeves and Roger Suratt. Dick Kennedy narrated the ceremony, with Bellefeuille giving opening remarks in tribute to Kmieciak. This was followed by scripture readings by Chaplin Tom Conti.

“I have known ‘Digger’ since 2004 and he would confide in me,” Conti said. “He told me he was hit in the back with grenade shrapnel. He was an Airman, but was taken to an Army Hospital by mistake after being hit, and as a result, his records were sent to the wrong Procurement Center, lost, and it took the Department of Defense 40 years to award ‘Digger’ the Purple Heart. I once was in distress with a plumbing problem and I called ‘Digger,’ who was a gifted mechanic. He arrived in minimum time with a part from Ace and fixed it immediately. I delivered the sermon for my friend ‘Digger’ at his memorial service and thought it fitting to read Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer.”

Kennedy said “Digger” was a very gifted tradesman, who it seems could do almost anything mechanically.

“Many of us called on Digger to borrow his expertise in home repairs, refrigeration, wiring, plumbing and with our vehicles,” he said. “‘Digger’ had a ‘heart of gold’ who always seemed to be there when we needed him. He personally always helped me hang the bunting at Barbara B. Mann Hall for the Pride and Patriotism Ceremony and was on hand to escort the students up on stage to receive their medals of excellence. ‘Digger’ also participated in many of the Brotherhood parades and was an Honor Guard periodically. We could always depend on our flags being kept properly if they were in ‘Digger’s’ possession.”

Kmieciak became a resident of Fort Myers Beach after leaving the service and started out as a shrimper and later ran the gas docks/ice plant for Ballard Oil/Balgas.

According to his obituary, Kmieciak loved using his metal detector, traveling from the Gulf Coast to the shores of Lake Superior. He enjoyed finding lost treasures and locating their owners.

He is survived by his fiance, Lois Ebert; his sisters, Joanne(Paul) Murn and Patti Tardiff; his brothers, Sonny and Kurt Stevens; along with several nieces and nephews.

“‘Digger’ was the first veteran I met at the Vietnam Brotherhood,” Kennedy said. “He immediately took me under his arm and ‘orientated’ me to the club and others. Digger could never say no to a friend in need and always was there when a brother had auto, AC, wiring or marine engine problems, since he had been a shrimper.

“I had a special fondness for him, since we were both from Michigan; he from the Upper Peninsula and I was from the Lower Peninsula. He was a typical what they called ‘Upper’ and was a tough, independent character. We loved to tell stories about the ‘frozen tundra’ and he told about running track in the snow and often on a frozen track. We both agreed that every year the Upper Peninsula has nine months of winter and three months of bad skiing. I miss you, brother.”

The service was culminated by Conti saying the closing prayer and a playing of the “Taps” by Tom Cookinham.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj