U.S. Marine Sgt. Major Patrick Tracy was set to lead a group of men through a treacherous section of Iraq in 2005.
Before he left, his commanding officer told him he'd be taking a photojournalist along for the ride.
I thought: Great, one more person I have to take care of, one more person I have to look after, Tracy said. I can't let anything bad happen to a photographer.
Tracy, a Pittston Area graduate and author of Street Fight in Iraq: A Private Journal of a U.S. Marine Warrior, was the featured speaker at Wyoming Area High School's 11th annual Veterans Recognition Program on Wednesday. He served two tours, one in 2004 in Operation Iraqi Freedom and one in 2011 in Operation Enduring Freedom. He has received numerous awards and medals.
As Tracy's vehicle neared the destination, it hit a roadside bomb and a tire got blown off.
There was gunfire hitting our vehicle. It was just a very bad place to be, he said.
He decided his team, which consisted of his driver, his wingman and the photographer, needed to get into a nearby building, get to the roof and return fire.
After a series of defensive moves, they made it to the roof and spent the rest of the day in a fire fight. As night approached and his vehicle was hitched to another, the men had to evacuate.
We finally got out of there in one piece, he said.
Later that night, Ray, the photographer, came into Tracy's quarters to thank him, but also to apologize.
I said why would you owe me an apology?
The photographer fessed up.
I need to tell you one thing, the reason I have to apologize to you, the photographer told Tracy. You just saved the life of a Wyoming Area Warrior.
Tracy, a Pittston Area Patriot just several years earlier, said that showed him how small the world really is.
It really doesn't matter what side of the river you live on.
Before the ceremony, about 75 veterans were treated to a turkey dinner that included mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn, cranberry sauce, rolls and coffee and iced tea. Surrounding the dining room were essays that Wyoming Area students wrote, many entitled, What Veteran's Day Means to Me.
Principal Vito Qualia started off the ceremony on a lighter note.
Today is truly a special day, Quaglia told the crowd. Not only are we honoring these veterans, but it's also the only day that we will display our arch rival, Pittston Area's colors, so prominently in our building.
Pittston Area's colors are red, white and blue.
We're Americans today, he said. And we're here to honor our veterans.
Wyoming Area Superintendent Ray Bernardi urged students, when home from school on Monday because of the Veterans' Day holiday, to remember those that serve. We cannot rightfully celebrate the joy of our freedom without remembering a veteran's unwavering service to his or her country, Bernardi said.
Bernardi said members of the armed forces need to be recognized. Today, at Wyoming Area, we pause to honor all the men and women before you who have served honorably in the military during times of war and peace, he said. Many years ago the individuals in front of you made a choice to serve their country. For some it was the conflict of World War II or the standoff of the Cold War. Others found themselves in the jungles of Vietnam, Korea or Panama. Some have seen multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, on active duty or as reservists.
Taps was played for the fallen soldiers, which include former Wyoming Area School Board members Thomas Kearns, who died Nov 2.
George Yurek, a World War II vet from West Wyoming said he is humbled by the program each year. It's feels great to be honored, he said. These men here are the bravest men I know.
Bob Jones, also of West Wyoming, served aboard the hospital ship USS Repose in the Vietnam War.
We're so thankful for what Wyoming Area does for us each year, he said. And we're proud.
This was Tracy's first time back at the Wyoming Area gym since he competed there in 1985 as part of Pittston Area's wrestling team.
As a Pittston Area Patriot, it's very weird feeling to be cheered for in the Wyoming Area gym.
Tracy talked about U.S. Marines being Pennsylvania Tough.
After joining the Marines, he wound up being stationed in Scotland and his old gunnery sergeant served four tours in Vietnam.
He was so grizzled, he said. He still had shrapnel in his head they were unable to remove.
Tracy called him a veteran's veteran.
That sergeant told him about Pennsylvania marines.
A Pennsylvania Marine is tougher than everybody else. A Pennsylvania Marine works harder than everybody else. And a Pennsylvania Marine never complains, never whines, never quits and always gets the job done.
The sergeant told him that on his four tours in Vietnam, he had a two drill sergeants, a squad leader and a platoon commander that were all from Pennsylvania.
He said, those four people were the toughest, hardest working, non-complaining, toughest most blue collar guys I've encountered, he said.
Those words of wisdom have stayed with Tracy.
When he was in Iraq in 2005, he was able to pick his team for a particular mission.
I first asked who was from Pennsylvania. Five guys raised their hands. They were my first five picks.