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VA helps heroes at air show

September 04, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD
  • Belinda Berkemeijer chats Saturday with Tom Abell. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center provided benefits information at the Thunder Over the Blue Ridge Air Show and Open House at Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport near Martinsburg.
By Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Tony Pirrone donned white face paint and a brightly colored wig and clothing, but he was no ordinary clown Saturday at the Martinsburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center's third annual Welcome Home American Heroes Celebration.

Pirrone, who passed out candy and entertained children at the celebration at the Thunder Over the Blue Ridge Air Show and Open House, is a member of the medical center's newly formed Clown Brigade.

Started last year, the group of employees periodically dress in costume to infuse a bit of humor and levity among staff and patients at the medical center, Pirrone said.

The initiative, one of a number of Martinsburg VA Medical Center services profiled at the information event for veterans, has garnered significant attention within the VA system, and Pirrone said they hope to do more outreach beyond the medical center.

The Welcome Home American Heroes Celebration previously was held at the medical center, but the event was moved this year to take advantage of the large turnout for the air show, said Kevin McIver, public affairs officer for the VA Medical Center.

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This year's event also includes a traveling memorial wall project by Timothy Wright of Shippensburg, Pa.

The wood-framed stainless steel wall lists the names of all soldiers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., who have died while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001.

"When you hear 249 (dead), it's a number, but when you see the names, it's a whole other thing," Wright said.

"Right now, there's 680 names on this wall," Wright said. On Saturday morning, Wright said he added two names to the list from Virginia and one from New Jersey.

"It does get to me at times," the 59-year-old Vietnam War veteran said.

After affixing the gold metallic letters of a fallen soldier's name, Wright said he says a prayer and "I pray it's the last one."

"When I came back from Vietnam, a lot of people know how we were treated. And by doing this, it's making people realize that these soldiers gave their all," Wright said. "We've got to appreciate what they're doing."

Wright said donations have supported the wall's upkeep. He said he has volunteered his time to take it to about 75 events across the mid-Atlantic region as part of a personal effort to continue to serve after 33 years in the military.

The wall is scheduled to be on display Friday at Chambersburg Mall and Saturday at Letterkenny Army Depot.

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