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Local man dedicates life to service to veterans

Bernie Stanaway, left, poses in his U.S. Marine uniform with friend Jason Weyer in 1992. Stanaway has been selected as the 2019 Upper Peninsula Veteran of the Year. He will receive his award on Aug. 15 at the U.P. State Fair in Escanaba. (Courtesy photo)

NEGAUNEE — When Bernie Stanaway Jr. joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1992, he planned to make military service his career until an injury made it impossible, but helping others who served became his mission — one he has worked to fulfill for the past two decades.

Stanaway served in Korea; Okinawa, Japan; and New River, North Carolina, as a truck driver and then a fueler from 1992 to 1996.

“I went in open contract because I wanted to serve. I loved the camaraderie and the brotherhood,” Stanaway said in a phone interview Thursday. “And that’s where I learned the follow-through and the tenacity to take on a job and keep it going until you complete it.”

It is little wonder that Stanaway, the current commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3165 in Negaunee, was named 2019’s Upper Peninsula Veteran of the Year.

He was no stranger to adversity himself. After injuring his back in the military, he found maneuvering through the medical red tape challenging.

“When I got out of the service, no one was willing to help me,” Stanaway said. “A back injury is kind of an invisible problem. Because of that, I decided I would learn as much as I could in order to help other veterans get what they needed, no matter what first impressions are.”

The help Stanaway provided to other veterans began right away. The number of veterans he helped annually started small, but grew as time went on.

“I started right as I got out of the military because of what I went through, the preconceived notions,” Stanaway said. “I may have helped two people in 1997, in ’99 maybe I helped eight or 10, but the numbers just grew over time. I have stopped counting. It’s not about that, it’s about helping people.”

Stanaway’s volunteerism is well known in the veterans’ community, according to a release from the U.P. Veteran Selection Committee. In addition to being the commander of VFW Post 3165, he was the American Legion Post 44 past historian and past service officer, and he was elected commander for the AMVETS Post 122 and Post 125 for 12 years. He is also a member of the Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America groups.

In the past year, he has assisted veterans with service claims and medical bills, transported veterans to facilities in Marquette and Iron Mountain for medical appointments, assisted in AMVETS Post 122 picnics for hospitalized veterans and has participated in veterans’ funerals.

Stanaway is also active in several civic organizations, and has assisted with projects for the Masons, the Boy Scouts as assistant scoutmaster for Troop 372, merit badge counselor, unit commissioner and charter organization representative, the release states.

He even renders assistance after a snowstorm, as a volunteer for Project Evergreen — an organization that provides snow removal for disabled veterans and families of those deployed in the military.

“I can’t get out there right at 6 a.m.,” Stanaway said. “But luckily they are older veterans that don’t have to go to work. It’s so fulfilling just to see the joy that they don’t have to shovel the snow.”

A 2¢-year stint as a Marquette County trust agent — helping veterans who were unable to provide themselves the basic necessities of life — was fulfilling as well, but has also proven difficult.

“We had a veteran come in who was really down on his luck,” Stanaway said. “He was behind on all his bills and we were able to review his case, sent it to Lansing and we were able to make a huge impact on this man’s life. I really enjoyed that work. It was a love/hate relationship. I loved it because I could help people and hated it because you couldn’t help everyone.”

Stanaway is grateful for the recognition, but said his main goal is to help veterans in the community.

“This is quite an honor, but it’s not why I do what I do,” he said. “It was kind of hard sitting down for recognition. I volunteer because I see a need that needs to be filled.”

Stanaway will receive his award during the U.P. State Fair in Escanaba on Aug. 15, which is Veterans Day at the fair.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.