War College instructor highlights Apollo event

| Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 12:16 a.m.

The seventh annual Apollo Salute to the Armed Forces program is expected to draw more than 1,000 Armstrong County residents to Owens Field on July 4to commemorate past, present and future military personnel.

Delivering the keynote address at the Independence Day celebration this year is Army Col. Robert Mundell, a faculty instructor at the Army War College in Carlisle.

Program Chairman Vince Mazzon, 46, said the colonel's speech will focus on the relationship between the U.S. military and the society it serves. His speech will be preceded by those given by 1st Lt. Gary Karns of the Civil Air Patrol and Col. Mariana Eder, an artillery officer in the Brazilian army.

William Kerr, the Norwin School District superintendent who is actively involved in the Apollo Salute, said Eder arrived in Carlisle in mid-June to study in the Army War College's defense and strategic leadership program. With U.S.-Brazilian military ties growing warmer, the South American colonel will remain in country with his wife and two children for about a year under Mundell's mentorship.

“It's going to be really special and unprecedented having two colonels from different countries present and speaking at the ceremony,” Kerr said.

Kerr recruited Mundell to serve as the ceremony's keynote speaker when the two met this year at a Pennsylvania Education Leadership Program outing in Gettysburg.

Mundell will also serve as master of ceremonies and assist with the Gold Star Mothers award presentation following his speech.

The presentation will honor the mothers of five Apollo servicemen who were killed in the line of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Each year, the mothers of the deceased are presented with a personalized gift in memory of their sons.

“It's always a pretty touching ceremony,” Mazzon said. “It's a way of showing them some appreciation for what they've been through for this country. Their sons gave the ultimate sacrifice for us.”

The chronological order of the Apollo servicemen who were killed in action is as follows: Army Staff Sgt. Stevon Booker, Army Spc. William Sturges Jr., Army Spc. Joshua Henry, Marine Sgt. Lonny Wells Jr. and Army 2nd Lt. Michael Girdano.

“Every year, I hope and pray that the group doesn't grow anymore,” Mazzon said. “Fortunately, it hasn't in five years. You grow up with strong connections to these guys and it's devastating when they're taken from us.”

The Armstrong County American Legion Honor Guard will honor each of the fallen warriors with a 21-gun salute.

The ceremony will culminate with a barrage of fireworks that can be seen “from all over town,” according to Mazzon.

A significant portion of ceremony attendees each year, the program chairman said, arrive at Owens Field around 10 p.m. solely for the fireworks display. The spectators clamorously pile into the bleachers and surrounding areas during the Gold Star Mothers award presentation.

He's hoping more people arrive earlier this year to witness the ceremony.

“It really upsets me to see people coming in during the middle of the ceremony and talking over it because they just want to see the fireworks,” Mazzon said. “If it bothers me, I can't imagine how the mothers feel. They're the same people their sons fought and died for.”

Mazzon said a great deal of the program is dedicated to recognizing individual veterans and active military personnel present in the crowd.

“People come up to me and thank me every year for putting it together,” he said. “They shouldn't thank me. They should thank our service members.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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