Chants of “USA!” echoed across Lydia Street, as youngsters from Carnegie Elementary proudly waived their American flags.
Through tinted bus windows, veterans from across the country could be seen smiling, tipping their hats and offering a thumbs up as they passed by.
Ten buses, filled with some of the country’s oldest veterans, rolled into Carnegie on May 20, where they were met with a friendly greeting from the community and a tasty meal at Cefalo’s Banquet and Event Center.
For the fourth straight year, Cefalo’s served lunch to nearly 400 people on the VetsRoll four-day trek from Beloit, Wis. to Washington D.C. where the roughly 220 veterans on board will have a chance to see two of the country’s war memorials the week prior to Memorial Day.
“We’re just honored to do this,” said co-owner Len Cefalo.
VetsRoll provides free trips to the memorials for veterans who served from 1966 or prior. They come from all across the country and board buses in Wisconsin. On the trip, there’s a team of medically trained personnel there to meet their every need, said Mark Finnegan, president and co-founder of VetsRoll. They make various stops along the way.
The hope is to provide closure for the veterans, he said.
“Our tagline is: Closure, gratitude and respect,” Finnegan said. “It’s just a celebration of patriotism and freedom.”
Four-and-a-half years ago, Cefalo said he received a call asking if his Carnegie business would be able to host the veterans for lunch as they make their way to Washington D.C.
Initially, they didn’t think they could make it happen. There were just too many people.
But Cefalo’s son, Dean, who is his partner at the center, wanted to make it happen.
So, the two sat down and mapped it out, using every corner of the facility: the night club, the VIP area, the banquet room, the patio and the side rooms. They found a way to make it work.
As a Vietnam veteran himself, with a dad who served in the Army and father-in-law who served in the Navy, Cefalo said his family has a special place in their hearts for veterans.
“We just wanted to make it very nice for them,” he said.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, state Sen. Pam Iovino, state Rep. Anita Kulik and Carnegie Mayor Stacie Riley all greeted the attendees and welcomed them to the area.
“It is tremendous to see the veterans roll in,” Riley said, calling that moment when they come to town “breathtaking.” “We’re so proud that they came to Carnegie.”
Cefalo also credited police Chief Jeff Kennedy and district magistrate Jack Kobistek with helping coordinate the day.
For the veterans, the entire trip is meaningful. But the stop in Carnegie is extra special, they said.
Of course, the buffet of Tuscan chicken, honey-roasted red skin potatoes, two types of pastas, green beans, vegetables, salad and homemade cookies was a hit with the crowd.
They also loved the children lining the streets to celebrate their entrance.
“When I came back from Vietnam in 1967, they didn’t have a parade for us. They spit at us and called us baby killers. So, having people show out like this brings tears to my eyes,” said Bob McDonald, 74, of Waterman, Ill.
The elementary students who came out to show support hope the veterans realize how much they mean to them, they said.
“I appreciate them,” said Mia Michalski, 9, a fourth grader.
“This is to support them and let them know they’re supported in the United States of America,” said Saniyah Scott, 9, a fourth grader.