The Civilian Aide Emeritus to the Secretary of the Army for Western Pennsylvania, John E. Spisso, annually brings a group of veterans to the nation's capital on a journey to see the war memorials, lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and visit the gravesite of a lost hometown hero in Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60. One hundred and ten veterans and Family members joined Spisso on this year's journey June 15, with representatives from the Armbrust Veterans Association, The Retired and Enlisted Association Chapter 98 and the Pennsylvania Patriot Guard Riders. Even two Benedictine priests from the St. Vincent Basilica Parish of Latrobe, Pa., were invited by Spisso for a special mission on this year's trip.
After a four-hour drive from Latrobe, the two chartered buses arrived next to Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall's dining facility and the veterans disembarked to make their way to the day's lunch. As the veterans filed into the dining facility, several proudly wore their old service uniforms. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines – after all these years, the uniforms still fit.
Lunch guests included Woody Goldberg, the civilian aide to the secretary of the Army for the District of Columbia, and Laura DeFrancisco, with the Office of the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Army and CASA program.
Following lunch, the group was greeted by Lt. Col. Brandon Robbins, who welcomed the veterans on behalf of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, and Regimental Commander Col. David P. Anders.
Next on the agenda were visits to the Korean, Vietnam and World War II memorials. The group made quick stops at the Air Force and Iwo Jima memorials on their way to Arlington National Cemetery.
A highlight of the group's visit is the annual wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns. This year, the honor of laying the wreath went to two Korean War Veterans, Joseph Mosso and Vincent Wisyanski, and three members of the Pennsylvania Patriot Guard Riders, Barri R. Bioni, Ralph A. DeLorme and Ray Zimmerman.
Spisso noted that Mosso and Wisyanski, both from western Pennsylvania, met while serving together at Camp St. Barbara in Korea in 1955. While there, they were recruited, along with other Soldiers, by a local Catholic priest to help build a church.
“We built the chapel, Blessed Sacrament, near the Hantau River,” Mosso recalled. “About 12 men helped build the chapel from April to October, 1956. We related well to the television show “M*A*S*H” because we had no clue where all the materials came from – they just arrived.”
“We spent the entire summer in high temperatures building that chapel,” Wisyanski said.
“The way the priest kept us working was cooling beer in the Hantau River for us to drink after working in the heat,” Mosso added.
The two Soldiers lost contact after the war. “I was an electrician and Joe was a pharmacist,” Wisyanski said. “We were out of contact for about 20 years when I stopped by Joe's pharmacy while on a trip to Latrobe, Pa., and we've remained in close contact since.”
Following the solemn ceremony at the Tomb, the veterans made their way to the cemetery's Section 60 to visit the gravesite of their own hometown hero, Spc. Ross A. McGinnis, who – in December of 2006 at the age of 19 – gave his life when he fell on a grenade that had been thrown into his vehicle in Baghdad, Iraq. McGinnis' action saved the lives of four other Soldiers. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, Silver Star, Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
The veterans gathered around McGinnis' gravesite as the two Benedictine priests, Rev. Thomas P. Curry and Rev. Benoit Alloggia, officiated over a brief memorial service. Three bouquets of ruby red roses were laid at the headstone which reads, “Ross Andrew McGinnis, JUN 14, 1987 - DEC 4, 2006.”
“This is such an honor to be here,” said Jules Shubuck, one of the six Pennsylvania Patriot Guard Riders who made the trip. The other riders included Bioni, DeLorme, Zimmerman, Leonard Cole and Aaron Zeff. Shubuck explained that he and the other five were among the Pennsylvania Patriot Guard Riders who escorted McGinnis' funeral procession in 2007.
“I think the [Patriot Guard Riders] is a special organization. We fulfill the wishes of each Family we assist,” Bioni said.
“We escort the servicemember killed in action from the airport to the funeral home. We establish a flag line during the viewing hours at the funeral home and on the day of the funeral.”
“Our main goal is to render honor and respect to the KIA and their Family,” DeLorme said. “It's an honor and a privilege to perform these duties for these Families.”
Delorme explained that in addition to those killed in action, they also show support following the deaths of veterans and first responders.
The group then returned to the JBM-HH dining facility for dinner, where they were joined by Col. Carl R. Coffman, JBM-HH commander. Coffman addressed the group, mixing sincere gratitude for the service and sacrifices given by the veterans and their Families with a bit of light-hearted banter. “So you're from western Pennsylvania,” he quipped, “I guess you are all Eagles fans.”
Coffman presented Spisso with a framed certificate of appreciation for his service and unceasing commitment to the veterans of Pennsylvania and their Families. Coffman also had a personalized certificate of appreciation for each individual in the group.
Following dinner, the group was hosted by the commanding general of the Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region and Military District of Washington, Maj. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, at the Twilight Tattoo performance held at Whipple Field at JBM-HH
“It was a beautiful evening and wonderful performance,” Spisso said. “We were also very honored to have the opportunity to meet the Army's new Chief of Staff, Gen. [Martin] Dempsey.”
Following the tattoo, Spisso's veterans settled into their buses for the trip back to Pennsylvania – weary, but satisfied after a non-stop, event-filled and emotional day.
“We'll be back next year,” Spisso said sharing ideas on how to honor even more veterans.
(Contributions to this story were made by Rhonda Apple, Pentagram Staff Writer)