Jersey display honors Derry High School grad killed in action
It will soon be two decades since Earl Fillmore was killed in action during a military engagement in Somalia. Still, the Derry Area High School graduate's military service and supreme sacrifice continues to inspire others in his hometown.
Family members, friends, former coaches and school staff gathered last week in the school's fitness center to witness the dedication of a display that is being placed in the new facility to honor Fillmore.
After leaving the school's halls behind in 1983, Fillmore joined the Army and went on to become the youngest person to join the military branch's elite Delta Force. He was killed in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu while part of a task force that was fighting to reach the site of a downed U.S. helicopter in Somalia. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for distinguished gallantry he displayed in the engagement that inspired the movie "Black Hawk Down."
"In October 1993, we lost a brother, a son, an uncle and a friend, but we gained an American hero and an inspiration," said Brenda Perry of Latrobe. The eldest of Fillmore's six sisters, she spoke on behalf of the family during the dedication program.
"Earl Fillmore was just a young man with a big heart and a lot of dreams," Perry said. "He wanted the best for everyone. He never thought of himself first."
She expressed hope that the display honoring Fillmore will help to inspire today's Derry Area students, sending the message that "they too can become whatever they strive to be."
The focal point of the tribute is the jersey Fillmore once wore when he filled the roles of defensive outside linebacker and kicker for Derry Area's Trojans football squad. The jersey was discovered when work was getting under way for the fitness center construction more than a year ago.
According to Perry, a friend and former teammate of Fillmore's who is now a coach at Derry Area came up with the idea of creating the display and donated it to the district with the request of remaining anonymous.
"I could not think of a more fitting place to hang Earl's jersey than in this fitness center," said Derry Area School Board President Dave Krinock. "It's a place where all Derry's athletes will work out to become stronger and dedicated in their sport."
Perry noted that her late brother was interested in sports "from the time he could say sports. He was very, very athletic. I think that's what helped him go as far as he did in the military."
The display also represents Fillmore's military legacy. Perry explained it contains a miniature painting created by another of her brother's friends that shows the friend's young son saluting at Fillmore's grave at Fort Bragg, N.C.
While Fillmore's military achievements have inspired many in his former hometown and school community, perhaps none have been motivated more than two of his younger relatives who attended the dedication program.
Perry's eldest daughter and Fillmore's niece, Angela Burd, said her late uncle's role in the military helped prompt her to choose a career in the armed services.
Burd, who graduated from Derry Area in 1994, said she signed up with the Army about six months after Fillmore's death.
"He was only 10 years older than me. I was very close to him," Burd noted. "Whenever I thought of being a success, I always thought about him in the Army and how happy it made him."
Burd said she initially intended to serve only four years of active duty in the Army, which also provided her the opportunity to obtain a college degree. She holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in leadership.
Burd, who resides in Latrobe, was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, where she served as a chemical operations specialist working with gas masks.
After completing the stint, she said, "I realized I missed being in the uniform." She signed up for additional duty with the National Guard, which she's continued for 14 years. She currently serves as a recruiter in Greensburg.
Also at last week's ceremony was Tad DeValerio, a nephew of Fillmore's who is following in his late uncle's footsteps in more ways than one. The Derry Area junior is a tailback and linebacker with the current edition of the Trojans. He also revealed that, as he's learned more about Fillmore's legacy, he, too has decided to join the National Guard.
DeValerio said his parents have encouraged him in his decision and his late uncle has provided him plenty of motivation.
DeValerio said his goal is to "maybe be close to what he accomplished."
He said when he first made the connection between the story of "Black Hawk Down" and Fillmore, "It really hit home. He inspired me."
Burd said the tributes that her late uncle continues to receive are "amazing. It makes me feel proud to be related to a local hero. I can't imagine being more proud of anybody."