Armed Forces Day offers recognition to those who served

Thomas Hatch of Dysart had often heard the phrase, “My heart aches,” but in October 2005, he learned that when people say that, their hearts really do ache.

His best friend, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel R. Lightner Jr., a member of the 28th Division Military Police Company, died that month when an improvised explosive device placed in a sewer in Ramadi, Iraq, ignited under his vehicle while on patrol.

Lightner, a 28-year-old Pennsylvania State Police trooper in civilian life, was best friends with Hatch.

Hatch said he watched Lightner grow up. He said his friend was a super competitive guy, and he and Lightner often discussed the trooper’s future upon conclusion of his service in the Army.

Lightner’s death, said Hatch, “was overwhelming,” and yes, he said, “My heart ached.”

Standing next to Hatch as he talked during an Armed Forces Day remembrance at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center on Saturday was another of Lightner’s close friends, Army Sgt. 1st Class Melanie Rininger, who served two tours abroad with Lightner’s unit and who was in Ramadi the day Lightner died.

Rininger of Jackson Township in Cambria County – the guest speaker to an audience of more than 300 veterans, their families and a host of civilians – said she often speaks about her war experiences, but she said that Saturday, being so near Lightner’s hometown of Hollidaysburg, made her appearance at Van Zandt’s Wall That Heals special.

In the audience was Lightner’s mother, Judy, and another friend of the fallen soldier, Patricia Wilt.

“He was my squad leader and my closest friend. He taught me so much and his memory will never die with me,” said Rininger,” speaking of Lightner.

She would have been in the same patrol as Lightner that fateful day, Oct. 27, 2005, except he ordered her to stay back because she had been on duty 16 straight days. She argued. He would not relent in his order.

The people Rininger served with over the years went through hard times. She explained the cost of war in human terms. Lightner and another friend died in combat. Others were severely injured. There was a suicide. Another died of cancer.

She suffered survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress. She thanked the VA hospital for helping her through the repeated challenges. And, she said, her faith in God was important in her life.

There were many listening who understood what Rininger was talking about.

She spoke of love of her service and her country and she said, “It continues to grow.”

Listening, not far away was 97-year-old Frank Basciani of Altoona, accompanied by his son. The World War II Army veteran waved an American flag and called Armed Forces Day “the biggest day.”

Lloyd Peck, a Korean War veteran, helped organize the Armed Forces Day event.

The colors were carried by six Vietnam veterans.

And Peck arranged to have flags presented to several of the most recent combat veterans.

One of those was Sgt. Kenneth P. Brazile, 25, of Altoona, who went to Afghanistan in March 2012 with the 420th Engineering Unit, 3rd Platoon, based in Indiana, Pa. A combat engineer in Kunduz, he helped clear IEDs. He was was sent back home on October 2012 because of an IED explosion.

He said the day to him was “honoring those who served now … and then.”

Joining him in receiving flags was Staff Sgt. Joseph M. Neary II of Bellwood, who served in the Army from January 2001 to February 2010. During that time, he was attached to the 2nd Marine Division and Seal Teams 1, 3, and 6. He received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Start for his service. He now works at Van Zandt.

Sgt. Peter Cassarly, part of a North Afghanistan Combat-Engineer Route Clearance Team, Army Specialist Shea Fleck, who served in Afghanistan, and Master Sgt. Joseph Bidoli Jr., who served for 30 years in the 911 Airlift Wing, Pittsburgh, received folded American flags.

“When you see all these veterans in wheelchairs, it makes your heart bleed. I don’t want people to forget,” Hatch said as he stood with Rininger and her 7-month-old daughter, Abigail.