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Chris Rosenblum | Arms for Peace Family Memorial in Pleasant Gap remembers those lost and those who lost

Dedicated two years ago on Veterans Day, the Arms For Peace Veterans Memorial in Pleasant Gap honors servicemen and one servicewoman from central Pennsylvania killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Dedicated two years ago on Veterans Day, the Arms For Peace Veterans Memorial in Pleasant Gap honors servicemen and one servicewoman from central Pennsylvania killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. CDT photo

These are the other casualties of war.

The Arms for Peace Family Memorial in Pleasant Gap goes beyond listing the names of central Pennsylvanians who lost their lives in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

It includes those who lost them.

Next to the American Legion Post 867, a stone crescent contains 95 brass plaques for servicemen and one servicewoman killed from 2003 to last year. Most also have family members: spouses, children, parents, siblings, grandparents.

They represent broken hearts, shattered dreams, never-ending sorrow that time can’t dull.

When the memorial was dedicated Nov. 12, 2011, that’s exactly what its founder wanted to convey.

“I want people to stand in there and look at it,” Mary Watson, of Ferguson Township, said. “This is what really happens in war.”

She first imagined the memorial in 2009. Anger burned inside her from years of reading about the mounting costs of two protracted wars.

Her idea was a monument shaped so that it symbolized a hug for visitors stepping inside. But she first needed the community to embrace her plan.

It did.

The search for a site ended when Merle Wertz Jr., the commander of the Pleasant Gap American Legion post, agreed to provide space. The post also paid for a plaque honoring all veterans, and donated flagpoles and flags.

Dan Shawley, of Septic and Excavating Services; Jamie Addleman, of Beavertown Block; and Corey Eicher, of C.E. Cement, donated the materials and labor for the memorial’s construction. Joe Mannino, of Village Craft Iron & Stone, Inc., installed the exterior stone facade, shaping slabs to fit.

Watson offered to pay. Each time, she heard the same answer.

“We didn’t pay for anything except the plaques,” she said.

Even then, generosity came through.

Donations from fundraising helped cover the $300 cost of each plaque. Then Stephen Miska Jr., of Signature Engraving, lent his services.

Initially, Watson and her main memorial partner, Jean Slear, relied on the help of Kintersville resident Ruth Stonesifer to collect names of casualties from Latrobe to Harrisburg, from the New York border to Maryland.

Stonesifer, whose son, an Army Ranger, died in a 2001 helicopter crash in Pakistan, started the Hometown Heroes banner program.

Sometimes, Watson and Slear couldn’t track down family names. Other families, when contacted, declined to be included.

But most were like the family of Marine Sgt. Bill Cahir, who died at 40 on Aug. 13, 2009, in Afghanistan, one of seven Centre County residents with plaques.

His wife, Rene, is listed. So are his mother, Mary Anne; father, John; brother, Bart; and sisters, Ellen and Kathryn. And then, like a double stab to the gut, come two other names: his unborn twins, Elizabeth and Caroline.

Army Sgt. Carl Curran from Clarion County left behind a 4-month-old daughter, Michelle, when he died May 17, 2004.

Watson made it point to include ages for very young children.

“So we would realize how little these kids were when they lost their fathers,” she said.

Army Staff Sgt. Kimberly Voelz, of Cumberland County, wasn’t a mother. She was a demolition expert who died defusing a bomb on Dec. 14, 2003.

She had plenty of mourners, though: her parents, Carol and Floyd Fahnestock; her husband, Max; her brothers, Mark and Chad; her sister, Kelly; and her grandparents, Betty and Floyd and Norma and John.

She was 27, her age posted instead of her birth date, as with all the plaques. Watson wanted it that way, to hit harder. But everyone was “lost,” not “killed,” which she and Slear felt might have been too blunt.

Army Sgt. Matthew Sandri’s father demanded an exception. His son, from Northumberland County, is listed “KIA 3/20/04.”

“He said, ‘My son was not lost. He was killed,’ ” Watson said.

Army Pvt. Landon Giles’ extended family banded together to make its own request. They lost the Indiana County 19-year-old on Feb. 26, 2005.

“By the time he died, he had a mom and two stepmoms, and they all wanted their names on it,” Watson said.

She hopes on Veterans Day Tuesday, and any other day for that matter, people take the time to pull off state Route 144, visit the memorial and reflect on lives cut short — and lives altered forever.

Her memorial honors not just the dead, but also those who have to face every day afterward, veterans of their own battles.

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