By Jim Krencik
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — ARLINGTON, Va. — In a solemn ceremony at one of our nation’s sacred sites, four local veterans who answered the call to service seventy years ago honored their brothers and sisters who’ve come to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
A group of more than ninety veterans and their families were in Washington last week as part of the 2012 Patriot Trip, a four-day experience organized by Assemblyman Steve Hawley.
Among the veterans attending the fifth-annual event were World War II veterans Stanley Stefaniak of Medina, Mike Paduchak of Kendall, Don Nagle of LeRoy and Nick Zinni of Batavia. Saturday, they played a central role in the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unkowns.
With instructions from the sentinels who protect the tomb, Stefaniak, Paduchak, Nagle and Zinni stepped forward with silent reverence to place a wreath at the burial site for unknown war dead from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Their dignified act was observed with pride by the rest of the Patriot Trip and assemblage of visiting veterans, Girl Scouts and families.
“This is the greatest honor we can bestow on our fellow veterans,” Stefaniak, who served as an operation of a power station at a military installation in the Arctic Circle during the war, said before the ceremony.
Stefaniak and his felow veterans were serious in their responsibility, following the precision of a member of the tomb’s honor guard with a march to the tomb and salute after presenting a flowered wreath.
Afterwards, there were smiles and relief as they were cheered by their trip-mates.
“That wasn’t too hard,” said Zinni, who served as a radioman in South Pacific.
“That was worse than going into battle,” joked Paduchack, who wore his Army uniform in the ceremony.
Paduchak’s uniform bore the the Combat Infantryman Badge he earned in combat during the liberation of Europe. As the young but serious sergeant who led the veterans through the ceremony personally thanked each man afterwards, he reached to his uniform as presented Paduchak with his own CIB.
It was a sign of respect that deeply impressed the Patriot Tour’s attendees.
“Everything has to be perfectly creased and pressed, and he walked away out of uniform,” Kevin Sheehan of Albion said after seeing the medal transfer. “That’s respect.”
Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place of two presidents and thousands of men and women who’ve served their nation. It is also where soldiers whose identities are not known have been guarded continuously by the sentinels of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment since 1937.
The ceremonial changing of the guard is often marked with the placing of a wreath at the site, an occasion that the Patriot Trip’s attendees have experienced as observers but not participants.
”This was something that we really wanted to do, especially for our World War II veterans,” Hawley said.
Arrangements were made with both the Army Honor Guard and a local florist, whose beautiful wreath of fresh red and white flowers was funded by the Lincoln Post 1483 Ladies’ Auxiliary.
The wreath remained at the gravesites as the changing of the guard ceremony commenced with dedicated precision — with one sentinel relieving another, taking his post as the protector of the tomb.
The Patriot Trip began in 2008 following Paduchak’s urging of a project to provide World War II veterans the opportunity to experience the recently-built monument commemorating their service.
Nagle, who served in naval aviation at air stations along the eastern seaboard and was one of the men training for the invasion of the Japanese home islands before the war came to an abrupt end, has attended all but the first trip; Stefaniak has come three times, Paduchack twice and for Zinni it was his first trip.
The trip’s first year was made up largely of World War II veterans, but later years have brought more veterans from later eras. For the men who received rounds of applause and cheers Saturday for both their service seven decades ago and at the memorial, its the trip is an annual event they hope to keep attending.
“I’ll do it every year I can,” Stefaniak said.Contact reporter Jim Krencik at 585-798-1400, ext. 6327.