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'Out of the Foxhole' event recounts veterans' sacrifice, patriotism

| Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, 12:14 a.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Veterans Bryon Speakes, left, a University of Pittsburgh student, and Ryan Ahl, director of veterans services at Pitt, talk with one another at the 'Out of the Foxhole' event at Solders & Sailors Memorial Hall on Sunday, February 23, 2014. The program was celebrating post 9/11 veterans and their families and encouraging younger veterans to share their stories.

Bart E. Womack, a retired command sergeant major, recalled the chaos of an American soldier lobbing four grenades and firing at least two rounds at his buddies in the middle of the night — just 48 hours before his unit moved to invade Iraq.

Though some of the grenades exploded just five feet from him, Womack survived. Two officers were killed, however, and at least 12 others in the 101st Airborne Division were wounded on March 23, 2003, in Kuwait.

He recounted the treachery on Sunday as keynote speaker for a program sponsored by Steel City Vets, the Veterans Breakfast Club and Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum Trust Inc.

“It's time for you to tell your story,” Womack, 55, of Columbus, Ohio, told the veterans in the audience at Soldiers & Sailors in Oakland. “I can't think of a better way for me to tell my story than at the Veterans Breakfast Club.”

Womack, author of the book “Embedded Enemy,” spoke before 70 people attending “Out of the Foxhole — Celebrating Post-9/11 Veterans and Military Families.”

The club helps connect veterans with civilians.

Julia Santilli, 26, of Hopewell has attended some of the club's events, including Sunday's talk. She was wearing a dog tag-style necklace imprinted with the name of her cousin Shawn, who was killed in action in Iraq nearly 10 years ago.

“My grandfather was a World War II veteran,” she said. “He told me all his stories. It's important for veterans to have an audience to listen to their stories so we remember.”

“Especially World War II veterans,” added her mother, Nancy Santilli, 56, also of Hopewell. “So many are dying, and we need to hear their stories before they're gone.”

The traitor in the attack against the 101st Airborne is Sgt. Hasan Akbar. He was discovered about two hours later in a bunker. Sentenced to death, he is imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one of every 200 Americans has served in the active military at any given time, according to Pew Research Center. At the height of World War II, nearly one of every nine Americans had served.

If ordinary citizens do not know anyone who served in the military, they do not understand their sacrifices and are not engaged with the military, said Todd DePastino, director of the Veterans Breakfast Club and one of the organizers of the event.

Dennis Keen, 65, of Spring City in Chester County attended the address. He is the father of a veteran.

“It's important because that way we learn the sacrifice and devotion and patriotism, which we who haven't been in the military don't always hear,” Keen said. “It's important for those in the military to get their story out rather than keep it in.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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