Learning About a Hometown Hero: Cpl. Michael Pynnonen


Learning About a Hometown Hero

by McKenzie Mathewson and Shannon Kievit

MICHAEL JONAS PYNNONEN is honored on Panel 12W, Row 58 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


The National Call for Photos—Put A Face With A Name—Our “Hometown Hero.” Our history teacher thought it would be a great project for us to research the person from our town whose name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She thought it could be tied into our annual Veterans Day commemoration. As she described the project, we were intrigued. It sounded like an easy report.

We had no idea the impact Michael Jonas Pynnonen would have on our lives.

Who was this young man who died over 40 years ago? Research began with the last years of Mike’s life. His high school yearbook gave us pictures. Our teacher knew his cousin and his sister. They, in turn, gave us the names of Mike’s high school buddies, who shared stories of Mike’s life as he grew up in Lewiston, Michigan. They shared stories about his days as a football and basketball star. The girls remembered that Mike was so handsome.

Talking with his sister was an extremely moving experience for us. We found out that his death was incredibly hard on her, and even to this day, she hasn’t been able to make a visit to The Wall. Something that happened decades ago still affects her greatly.

We discovered something neither of us had expected: The names on The Wall had faces. The faces became real people for us. The emotional impact of this research was overwhelming. 

When we began the project, our hometown hero was someone unknown to us, but we came to feel sadness for such a loss, compassion for his family and friends, and gratitude for his service to our country. 

A trip to Washington, D.C., gave us the opportunity to visit The Wall. There was Mike’s name. We were moved to tears. Seeing all of those names was a heart-wrenching experience.

All of those people’s names made us think about what they sacrificed. They all had hopes, dreams and families. So many of their own personal hopes and dreams never came true. 

As for their families, they were crushed when the news came about the death of their loved ones. We can only imagine the pain caused by losing someone so tragically. It was awful to think of all the wives who would never see their husbands again; children growing up without fathers; and the mothers and fathers who lost their children. Sitting there at The Wall made us think about all the emotions attached to that wall of names. The thought of putting a face with every name seemed very appropriate. 

In the past, we had not always had an interest in history. Then, we realized that the stories of the people whose names are on The Wall are our history. It struck us that history really is important. Now, it is not just a book that spits facts at us; history is alive. Today, we are honored to be learning about the things that happened in the past.

Without that emotional experience of learning about Michael Pynnonen and seeing all of those names on The Wall, we wouldn’t have been able to connect with history as we do today. Through this whole experience, we have learned many values and the importance of our country. 

By speaking with groups in our community, we hope we have inspired others to find out how they can help build the Education Center at The Wall. More importantly, we hope that other students will honor their hometown heroes by researching their lives. It will make history come alive for them, too. 

By working on this project, we have developed a new appreciation for our country, realizing the price of freedom.

Our hearts have been touched. Our minds have been opened to the past.