Family, friends gather to wish Salem woman well as she deploys to Afghanistan
As her family drove toward Metzgar Elementary School in New Alexandria on Sunday, Samantha Malik's eyes grew wide and she grinned.
When the car pulled into the school's driveway, Malik barely had time to get out before family and friends pulled her into bear hugs.
Sgt. Malik, 21, of Salem was en route to Pittsburgh International Airport, heading to Fort Hood, Texas, after a four-day leave.
Days before Christmas, she and about 70 other members of the Company B 2-104th General Support Aviation Battalion, National Guard, will deploy to Afghanistan.
Malik thanked those who gathered on Sunday — many of whom were clutching send-off signs or waving American flags — to wish her well.
“This is the most overwhelming thing I could ever imagine could happen to me. I never expected all of my friends and family to be here. Thank you for coming out. It means so much to me. I love you all,” Malik said, tearing up.
“We love you back,” many in the crowd responded.
The gathering was a surprise for Malik and her father, New Alexandria fire Chief Ted Malik, said Sue Sterrett, borough activities committee chairwoman.
“Fire departments are very tight-knit. There were a lot of private messages on Facebook,” Sterrett said.
Malik's mother, Sandy, credited Randy Neiderhiser, her husband's co-worker at the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety, with coming up with the plan.
“I made a few phone calls, and it just blossomed,” Neiderhiser said.
The idea was to show Malik that her community is supporting her and to offer some emotional support to her family, including her brother Chris, Neiderhiser said.
A recent graduate of Westmoreland County Community College with an associate degree, Samantha Malik planned to join the National Guard on graduating from Chester County-based 21st Century Cyber Charter School in 2009.
She said at the time that her inspiration came from her grandfather, who served in the Navy during the Korean War.
Malik graduated from basic training and a course on helicopter repair, and she expects to deploy for the first time on Dec. 21.
Sandy Malik admitted having “mixed emotions” on Sunday.
“But I am thinking the sooner she goes, the sooner she comes home,” she said.
Malik's unit is expected to return in October.
Ted Malik said he was overwhelmed by the community's response.
“It's incredible. It leaves me speechless. How do you put into words how it makes you feel inside?” he said.
K.J. Florek, Samantha Malik's grandmother, expressed confidence in her granddaughter's abilities.
“‘Look out, Afghanistan' is what I say because she's Army strong. Trust me, she will get the job done and come back to us,” Florek said.
Fire trucks from numerous area communities participated in Sunday's event, and helicopters from Life-Flight and STAT MedEvac landed on the school lawn.
After many rounds of embraces and well wishes, the family piled back into the car and headed for a second surprise.
Just before the Route 819 intersection with Route 22, an American flag, raised by two fire truck ladders, provided a patriotic farewell.
As the family drove beneath the flag, a police car and fire truck escort joined them, delivering them safely to the Allegheny County line.
Mary Pickels is a staff writer for TribTotal Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.