When he was 8, Dennis J. Znaniecki used to watch the color guard march during the Memorial Day parade, and one year he turned to his grandmother and said, “I’m going to do that one of these days.”
“She’s like, ‘Tell your dad,’ ” Znaniecki said.
His father and two of his uncles served as members of the color guard. After the prayer was over, he walked over to his dad and asked if he could march with the color guard.
“You can’t. You have to be a veteran,” his father said.
“Well, I want to be a veteran then. How do I become a veteran?” Znaniecki said.
Znaniecki’s family had all the branches covered: His father was a Marine, and his uncles were in the Army and Air Force. He joined the Navy on Aug. 15, 1983, at age 18. His father jokingly called him “the traitor of the family,” Znaniecki said.
“After seeing them guys, the pride they had. I went to the recruiting office, and I was hooked.”— Dennis Znaniecki, U.S. Navy veteran
Now the commander of Peru American Legion Post 375, Znaniecki said he chose the Navy because “they got the first shot.”
He just wanted to serve the country in any capacity he could.
“After seeing them guys, the pride they had,” he said. “I went to the recruiting office, and I was hooked.”
He went on to serve four years. With a brief absence, he served 20 years. Znaniecki retired Oct. 31, 2004.
“I got out for about a year – I was bored to death,” he said. “I mean, going out to sea, you can’t explain it. When you see nothing but water, it’s calm – almost like glass under the moon. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Although he loved the open ocean, during his time in the Navy he looked forward to shore duty, coming back home to recruit new members and eventually taking over the office for the man who recruited him, Robert “Navy Bob” Ankiewicz.
After retiring, Znaniecki joined the American Legion and served as senior vice commander under Ankiewicz. Znaniecki took over for him as commander in 2018 after Ankiewicz was diagnosed with cancer.
Kathy Ankiewicz, Robert’s wife, said there was nothing Znaniecki wouldn’t do to help another person, and he takes pride in every aspect of his duty.
“He’s always been there,” she said. “From the time we got involved with stuff, he was always there to help. Do whatever needs to be done. When my husband was sick, he took over all the organizations for him.”
Znaniecki is commander of the Peru Veterans Memorial Group, vice president of the La Salle County Veteran’s Assistance Commission, a member of the VA Home Advisory Commission and a trustee for the Peru River Rescue Station.
After Robert Ankiwicz died, Znaniecki made it his mission to ensure the American Legion was able to fulfill one of his last wishes by buying a new van for the Illinois Valley Veterans Home.
“They built up the poppy money every year,” Kathy Ankiewicz said. “They knew when my husband was alive [that] it was something he always wanted to give, and they provided it within two years after my husband’s passing.”
The American Legion purchased a veterans home in 2019 for $70,000. They dedicated the van to Ankewictz for his investments and commitment to the project.
“It meant a lot to Dennis [and] it meant a lot to Navy Bob to be able to purchase it,” Peru American Legion Post 375 Senior Vice Cmdr. Phil Valle said. “It means a lot to all veterans.”
Zananieki said the veterans home always has been an important project to him.
“The Legions and the VFW, I’m a part of both of them, and their sole purpose is to help veterans,” he said. “If it wasn’t for their sacrifices, where would we be today? So I think I owe it to them to do whatever I can for that veterans home.”
The 15-seat, handicapped-accessible van is used to take veterans to their doctors appointments. In 2020, the Peru American Legion and VFW planned to buy a van for the veterans home to transport veterans to Hines VA and other hospitals, but it was put on hold when the pandemic hit.
In August, Znaniecki brought the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall to Peru in an effort to raise funds for the second van and to honor those who served.
The wall is a 60% scale of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. It stands 6 feet tall and spans almost 300 feet wide.
Along with the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, residents had the opportunity to view a replica of the Middle East Conflicts Wall in Marseilles and the 9/11 first responders wall.
It usually takes a year for a city to get everything set up to have the Vietnam wall, but Znaniecki was able to accomplish it in eight months.
“It was an absolutely moving experience for me,” he said, “seeing some of our members open up at the wall when they are standing at their posts telling us about their experience.”
Valle said seeing the wall in Peru after seeing it in Washington, D.C., was an emotional experience.
“Personally, I have a personal friend whose name is on the wall,” he said. “He and I served together in the same squadron overseas. He was a very good friend.
“They call it the wall that heals, and when I visited the wall in Washington, D.C., I was able to make an etching of his name and finally have some closure. The fact that it came here gave our entire community the opportunity to witness it and be a part of it.”
Znaniecki said the wall had the result he wanted for the community and the veterans. They broke even on the cost but were able to raise $61,500 for another veterans van. The van will come donated by the veterans and citizens of the Illinois Valley.
Kathy Ankiewicz said Znaniecki’s dedication to providing for not only the veterans home but other veterans in the area is unparalleled.
“Dennis goes out of his way for any veteran,” she said. “He spends his own money, he gives his time to anyone who may need it. He bleeds Navy.”