For The Tribune-Democrat
Amid a crowd of quiet onlookers, some in military uniform, Pitt-Johnstown President Jem Spectar on Friday dedicated the university’s Heroes Memorial, a monument to the Sept. 11 attacks and the twin wars that followed.
About 200 people gathered alongside the memorial, a set of 12 granite slabs surrounding a 3,500-pound steel beam recovered from the World Trade Center’s rubble.
Inscribed on the slabs are 9,208 names: Every Sept. 11 victim and every American combatant killed prior to Aug. 23 in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Each soldier’s name is accompanied by his or her age, many no older than the students in attendance: “19,” “20” and “21” pepper the granite panels.
“These kids are our age,” said Cliff Maloney, Pitt-Johnstown’s Student Senate president. “It’s not just the older gentlemen, the older women – 5,500 of these names are college-aged.”
The handful of student veterans in attendance stood at attention and saluted as the university choir sang the national anthem.
Brian Gindlesperger, a Pitt-Johnstown senior awarded a Purple Heart after a 2004 roadside bombing in Iraq, led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance while a light snow fell.
“Service is a choice to give or sacrifice something you value,” Gindlesperger, a Marine, said from a podium at the monument’s entrance.
“I challenge each of you to ask yourselves, ‘How do I serve?’ ”
The intersection of education and military service was a common theme as politicians, university officials and instructors took the podium.
“It’s right and fitting that we have a memorial here, at one of our institutions of higher learning,” said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont. “It seems that history books dictate that peace is that short interim between wars and conflicts.”
Kristen Majocha, a Pitt-Johnstown communications instructor and Navy veteran, told onlookers she sought a graduate degree in part to understand the nationwide sense of confusion that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.
As the choir sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and the sun began to shine past the clouds for the first time in the ceremony, Spectar called veterans to join as he and Gindlesperger laid a wreath along one of the stone slabs.
A few spectators remained to inspect the twisted steel beam and the two slabs left conspicuously blank for future Iraq and Afghanistan war dead.
Contractors including Milkie’s Lawn & Landscape, Dolan’s Welding and Altoona Neon & Sign Service were involved in the project, the price of which is not yet known, university spokesman Bob Knipple said.
Campus Physical Plant workers helped fix the granite blocks to their aluminum frames.
“I have a relative who had a law office … right across the street from the World Trade Center,” said physical plant worker Richard Kesselak, who attended the ceremony. “To get something like this – it’s something special.”
Two students, firefighters at home, remained after the ceremony ended.
“The World Trade Center … I hold it close to my heart,” 21-year-old Joshua Sherrid of Steelton said. “I like to go out and support my brothers.”
Nate Myers, a member of the Riverside Fire Department based in Stonycreek Township, said the monument could be a sort of pilgrimage site for those like him.
“You’re gonna see an influx of emergency workers here,” he said.
For the generation in grade school on Sept. 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks and the wars that followed can finally come into full perspective at college and military age, Maloney said.
“ ‘Never forget’ spread across America as a motto,” he said.
“Here at Pitt-Johnstown, we will never forget.”
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