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LaRosa Boys & Girls Club keeps its Vietnam tradition

| Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, 3:57 a.m.
Families members of former club members killed during their service in Vietnam pay their respects during a wreath placing ceremony at LaRosa Boys & Girls Club in McKeesport on Saturday. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News

LaRosa Boys & Girls Club's 46th annual Veterans Day program honored members who were killed in the Vietnam War.

Families of 11 who died between 1965-69 gathered outside the McKeesport club Saturday with a handful of former club members, veterans and city officials to pay tribute to their memory.

Program narrator Walt Yager, treasurer and veterans publicity chair of LaRosa Boys & Girls Club, explained the history of the biannual memorial ceremonies that club founder Sam LaRosa began in 1966 when five members died in Vietnam. Six more died in that conflict, and LaRosa set aside a wall in the club's entrance to honor them all.

“Sam set in motion what is reputedly the first memorial in the United States to honor Vietnam veterans, more than a decade and a half before our national Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. was dedicated,” Yager said.

Each Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the club honors Norman W. Johnson, Michael J. Nemchick, James F. Brooks, Tyrone G. Burse, James E. West, Gregory F. Popowitz, Curtis T. Gay, Thomas J. Sweeney, Louis H. Huff II, John A. Germek and Lee D. Thomas.

“We want people to remember who they were and what they did,” said retired Marine Jay West, brother of the late James E. West. “As long as they hold these ceremonies, these 11 men will never be forgotten. And as long as we're alive, we will never forget our relatives.”

Members of the West, Sweeney and Johnson families stood through Saturday's ceremony next to the club's outdoor memorial, which includes a granite headstone inscribed with the name and casualty date of each fallen member.

“The family members will continue this honor twice a year,” said Tom Maglicco, former director of the LaRosa club. “I'm proud to be a part of it until I no longer can. Thank you, all.”

McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said the LaRosa event hits close to home as the club remembers those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam.

“My father was a Vietnam veteran, and he received two Purple Hearts,” Cherepko said. “To think that he very well could be on that memorial and not here, I know I wouldn't be here. More importantly, without these individuals and all of our veterans, none of us would be here.”

State Sen. James R. Brewster thanked families for bringing their children to the service.

“This crowd is starting to get a little smaller, so we want to get some younger folks involved,” he said. “One day, kids, you'll be standing here 20 or 30 years from now continuing this ceremony.”

Brewster said the community owes it to the veterans and their families to make sure the LaRosa event continues for decades.

State Rep. Bill Kortz, Allegheny County Councilman Bob Macey and Michael J. Nemchick of Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 9 also addressed those who gathered Saturday.

Liberty and Port Vue veterans offered a rifle volley, and the Dinkfelt family played taps.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media

. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.

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