For only the second time, an entire group was honored with the Veteran Community Initiatives’ Veteran of the Year Award on Monday night.
VCI bestowed the recognition on the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 1-104th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion during a ceremony held at the Pasquerilla Conference Center in downtown Johnstown.
The unit, housed at the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, returned from a deployment to Afghanistan in August, having suffered two fatalities in the theater: Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Ruffner and Chief Warrant Officer Jarett Yoder.
“For them to honor us and invite us to the dinner for our service to the country is just exceptional and greatly appreciated by all the soldiers in the 104th,” said Lt. Col. John Kovac, commander of the battalion.
The annual award was created in 2001. All previous honorees had been individuals, except in 2010, when World War II veterans from the Laurel Highlands collectively shared the recognition.
“It’s normally an individual award,” said Tom Caulfield, VCI president and director.
“The whole entire (104th) unit has been named as the Veteran of the Year because of the great work they did in Afghanistan and all of the hardships and the two deaths that were involved with their unit.
“Those of us that spent some time in Vietnam and Korea also know how it is to come back to an apathetic community at best.
“This year, we wanted a real community welcome to welcome our community veterans home, so we decided to have them as our guests and their family members that also endured the long period of time they were away.”
The event’s keynote speaker, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, a former member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division, further discussed how veterans have been treated upon returning from different wars.
“What all of you do on behalf of veterans on their return is very, very appreciated,” Corbett told a room of VCI supporters.
“As you know, many veterans came back after the Vietnam War and were not treated in the same way.
“After World War II, it was completely different. Everybody just came back and went to work. We didn’t quite think about it the way we do today.
“What you have demonstrated is you have learned lessons from mistakes that were made following the Vietnam War,” he said.
Corbett came to the event at the invitation of Bill Polacek, president and CEO of JWF Industries and JWF Defense Systems.
“Once I told him it was welcoming back the 104th, he was pretty excited about coming in,” said Polacek.
Along with providing an opportunity to honor the 104th, the reception served as a fundraiser for VCI, which helps veterans find employment.
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.