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Valley honors veterans

| Tuesday, June 1, 2004

LOWER BURRELL-- Sgt. Bill Haggerty of the U.S. Army Reserve 458th Engineering Battalion couldn't be there Monday to see the flags waving and hear the band playing during the city's annual Memorial Day parade.

But that doesn't mean the 36-year-old soldier from Lower Burrell wasn't remembered.

Haggerty shipped out for Baghdad, Iraq in mid-February, where he is serving as a combat engineer with the New Kensington-based company.

His family marched in Monday's parade down Leechburg Road with the relatives of other Army reservists who are still engaged in the struggle to maintain stability in the Middle East.

They carried photographs of their husbands, lovers, brothers and sons fighting on faraway battlefields. These smiling faces frozen in time served as a grim reminder to spectators that past was also present this Memorial Day.

The parade was organized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 82 in Lower Burrell and the American Legion Post 868.

More than usual, historic and current events were intertwined on this day of remembrance.

Veterans of World War II and conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan joined together at Monday's parade to honor their comrades who gave their lives for their country and its people.

They also prayed for the courageous U.S. servicemen and women in harm's way overseas and for the hundreds of families nationwide observing their first Memorial Day in mourning.

As of Friday, nearly 800 American soldiers have died supporting American-led operations in Iraq, including 45 in western Pennsylvania.

"There's a lot of emotion," said Haggerty's sister, Barbara Polk, 47, of Harrison, who clutched a photo of her brother.

"It's just sadness and wanting people to come home where they belong," she said.

Cathy Beatty of Vandergrift and Shelley Gaggini of Buffalo Township, marched while carrying pictures of their sons, who also are serving in Iraq with the 458th. A child's deployment in a foreign war can be a lonely burden to bear. So the mothers of "battle buddies" Pfc. William Beatty and Spc. Ronald VanTine, both 20, were touched by the thunderous support they received from the crowd.

"It was nice to see all the people cheering," Cathy Beatty said. "It brought tears to my eyes."

Gaggini said she spoke to her son early Monday morning, who told her that he is battling a stomach virus likely caused by a sand insect.

"He has his good days when he sounds cheery and upbeat and bad days when he sounds sad and lonely," Gaggini said. "He tries to call me once a week. If it goes any longer than that, then I really start to worry."

For Spc. Steven Penn, 21, of Lower Burrell, the memories of war are still fresh. Penn recently returned from a 13-month tour of duty with the 458th in Kuwait and Iraq.

"I'm still adjusting to being home," said Penn, who dressed in his desert fatigues for the parade. "All the applause was nice today. I didn't think we were that remembered back here."

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