Somber tribute honors fallen

The bands passed by as did the Humvees, the big trucks, the tanks and many other marching units … and then there was quiet in the Robert E. Laws Memorial in Altoona.

Three Marines raised the American flag and not a soul stirred or spoke. Some saluted. Others held their hands and hats over their hearts.

Suddenly a bell pealed throughout the downtown … then another and another … until there were nine.

That is the number of young members of the military from Blair County who have lost their lives in the War on Terrorism-Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom – now more than a decade old.

The sound of the bells drew tears from Doris Wantz of Altoona as she remembered her grandson, her “pride and joy,” U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Matthew N. Ingham.

Brian Baum of Blue Knob, a retired Marine, who, on the day his brother, Gunnery Sgt. Ronald Baum of Hollidaysburg, died near Fallujah, Iraq, was clearing improvised explosive devices in the same war. Brian Baum called his brother “cerebral,” the smart one who did well on tests and was a good soccer player.

He stood with another brother, Jodi, contemplative, just watching and remembering.

Maryann Hook’s son, Army Spc. Michael Hook, died in a Aug. 22, 2007, helicopter crash in Iraq. She remembered it was two days before his 26th birthday and just a couple of weeks before his son, Mason Michael Hook, was born.

“He’s our angel,” Maryann Hook said of the now 6-year-old boy.

Command Staff Sgt. Chad Physer of the 28th Infantry Division, a Bronze Star recipient in his long service in the military, called them all “fallen heroes, ” the three and the other six, who included: Army Sgt. Brandon E. Adams of Hollidaysburg; Army PFC Larry Parks of Logan Township; Air Force Major Duane Dively of Hollidaysburg; Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Jenkins of Altoona; Army Spc. Chad Edmundson of Williamsburg; and Army Sgt. Daniel R. Lightner Jr. of Hollidaysburg.

“America asks them to defend our freedom,” Physer said.

But, it asks a lot because of the many contradictions inherent with those who join the military.

They love America, but they must spend years and years in foreign lands. They value life, yet they are willing to die for their country.

They responded to the unprovoked attack on America that led to our recent wars, Physer said.

As he stood in the Laws Plaza downtown, he pointed to an area covered with red, white and blue bunting and asked for the new memorial to be unveiled.

It was a memorial, he said, for the families as well as those who died. It is to remember “the great sacrifice” they made.

The new memorial containing nine names rests comfortably among other plaques bearing the names of hundreds of other Blair County natives who have died in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

One other name stands alone, but next to nine who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, that of Army Spc. Duane W. Hollen Jr. of Bellwood, the lone county resident who died in Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Patricia Crew of Somerset County said she had a hard time watching the parade Monday, all the military men go by, because she wished they could all stay at home. Yes, she said, she can picture the assault on the beaches of Normandy, but she can’t understand it. “It just blows mind,” she said in speaking during the Memorial Day ceremony.

She knows about the price of war and that’s what she was talking about, the sacrifice of precious life.

Forty-six years ago, Crew and her Air Force husband, James, had one child, Dyanna, and he went off to Vietnam.

It was Nov. 10, 1967, he went on a mission and no one knows exactly what happened. She’s heard so many scenarios.

What she knows is that her husband, an Air Force Academy graduate, never came home. He’s listed as missing-in-action.

People say to her that the military fighting in foreign lands is not fighting for us, but she said, “Yes, they are.”

“I don’t know how to express my gratitude,” she said, but in speaking Monday she did just that, saying, “I think of him, and all the men and women who fight for me and my family.”

James Crew’s name is being kept alive by his only child, Dyanna, who never knew her father, but she, too, is thankful for all those who served.

“I claim them as my family. They are one of a kind in their own right,” she said.

Brian Baum, in trying to put what was going on Monday in perspective, said he thinks people in looking at the names on the wall should maybe take a minute, or five minutes, and look up the individuals and just see what they did.

Memorial Day was very busy in Blair County with parades in Hollidaysburg, Duncansville, the Juniata section of Altoona, and Roaring Spring.

The Catholic War Veterans marched from St. Mary’s Church near the Altoona Area High School to St. Mary’s Cemetery.

Thousands watched the parades, and many marched in the spirit of remembrance.

John Miller, an Army Special Forces veteran of the Vietnam War from Altoona, talked from the viewpoint of the soldier as he passed Law memorial just after the parade.

“Being a veteran…at one point in their life … whether man or woman, wrote a blank check to the U.S. States of America, payment upon demand up to and including their life,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.