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Key National Guard generals salute fallen soldier

July 23, 2011

Photo by Ted Lutz – Major General Wesley Craig, right, the head of the Pennsylvania National Guard, walks to a waiting van Friday after arriving by a Black Hawk helicopter at the soccer field at the rear of Kane area High School. Lt. Julie Smith, left, is the commander of Company A of the 128th Brigade Support Battalion based in Clearfield. Craig came to Kane to visit with the family of Staff Sgt. Kenneth VanGiesen.

*This is part of a special internet edition*

KANE – Two key generals in the Pennsylvania National Guard visited Friday afternoon in Kane with the family of 30-year-old Staff Sgt. Kenneth VanGiesen, who was killed Monday in Afghanistan.
The generals who flew to Kane in a Black Hawk helicopter from the Guard headquarters at Indiantown Gap near Harrisburg include:
*Major General Wesley Craig, who as adjutant general is the leader of the entire Pennsylvania National Guard.
*Major General Randall Marchi, who is the commander of the 28th Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
"It was my honor to meet with the family," Craig said after the private visit at the VanGiesen residence at 137 Lincoln Ave. in Kane. "They are great people. Their strong faith in God gives me inspiration."
In holding the state cabinet-level position of adjutant general, Craig is responsible for the command, control and supervision of every Air and Army National Guard unit in Pennsylvania. He also is responsible for six state-owned veterans' homes and programs for the state's million veterans.
Craig, former head of the 28th Infantry Division (Mechanized), retired from the National Guard in 2006. But Gov. Tom Corbett in January asked him to come out of retirement to serve as adjutant general of the Guard.
"I said 'sign me up,'" Craig said in explaining his return to active duty as head of the Guard. The State Legislature confirmed him for the position in May.
A graduate of Temple University, Craig has been deployed overseas with the Guard and was in Afghanistan himself in 2003-05.
Craig said he came to Kane to visit with the family because VanGiesen has been "one of my soldiers."
"It's never easy," Craig said. "But the family is receiving an outpouring of support from the community and our National Guard units."
VanGiesen and two other Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers were killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded as they rode in the same truck in a convoy.
These deaths mean that the Pennsylvania National Guard now has lost 39 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The total includes 30 lost in Iraq and nine killed in Afghanistan.
Craig said the Pennsylvania National Guard has suffered the heavy losses because "we're so heavily deployed."
"They want the best over there and we're the best," Craig said in praising VanGiesen and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
As commander of the 28th Infantry Division, Marchi oversees Pennsylvania Army National Guard units with more than 14,000 soldiers. VanGiesen has been a member of the Kane unit, which is under Marchi's  jurisdiction.
Most members of the National Guard are "citizen soldiers" who work in non-military jobs and train at drills every month and for two weeks in the summer. Marchi is no exception. In his civilian employment, Marchi is a director for the state Office of the Auditor General and is a certified public accountant (CPA).
In praising VanGiesen, Marchi said the soldier showed "his commitment to his country" by taking part in four deployments overseas since joining the National Guard in 1999 after graduating from Kane Area High School.
"All citizens in Pennsylvania should honor him for what he has done," Marchi said in saluting VanGiesen. "He's been one heck of a soldier."
The generals arrived about 2:30 p.m. aboard the helicopter that landed in the soccer field at the rear of Kane Area High School. A waiting van assigned to the Kane unit of the National Guard transported the generals and staff members to the VanGiesen residence. The private meeting lasted more than an hour.
Sgt. Julie Wilson, a Sheffield resident and the administrative Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) for the Kane unit based at the armory along Chestnut Street, drove the van. She was accompanied by Lt. Julie Smith, the commander of the local Guard company based in Clearfield.
Tom VanGiesen, father of the fallen soldier, described the meeting with the generals as "very informal."
"They were sincere," he said. "They showed they really cared."
Erin Sirianni, a 2000 graduate of Kane Area High School and the longtime companion of the fallen soldier, attended the private meeting with the generals along with her family. Erin and Ken have lived together in Erie,  not far from where Ken worked full-time at a National Guard field maintenance shop in Cambridge Springs.
Erin's father, Frank, who retired in 1987 as a master sergeant with the U.S. Air Force, said the generals were "very professional" in their meeting with the family.
"Everyone appreciated their visit with us," Sirianni said. "They talked to us and put us at ease."
As of Friday evening, funeral arrangements still were incomplete, although some information has been released by the family.
VanGiesen's body arrived back in the U.S. on Wednesday at the Dover, Del. Air Force Base. However, there apparently is a certain protocol to follow before the body is released and returned to Kane.
There is speculation that the body may be transported by plane to the Bradford Airport and then brought to Kane by a hearse. The Ronald McDonald Funeral Home of Kane is handling the arrangements.
Tom VanGiesen said there is a "possibility" that his son's body may arrive in Kane sometime Monday. If that is the case, he said the family plans a "private" gathering Tuesday at the funeral home.
Based on this very tentative schedule, he said his son's body then would "lie in state" at the Kane High School auditorium for three hours on Wednesday to give members of the public a chance to pay their respects.
Tom VanGiesen said a "private" burial would take place later at the Gibbs Hill Cemetery near Ludlow.
He emphasized that a timetable has not been set in stone because the family still has yet to learn exactly when the body of the soldier will be returned to Kane.
Meanwhile, Kane area residents and businesses are showing their respect by flying the American flag. There also are flags lining Fraley Street-- the main thoroughfare in Kane.
Children and adults also waved flags Friday when the helicopter arrived at the athletic field near the high school.
Kane Police Brian Hillard and Kane Police Officer Bill Nichols assisted at the scene along with State Police Trooper Ray Milliard.
Kane Fire Chief Norm Schreckengost, a longtime friend of the fallen soldier, also was at the scene along with five members of the Kane Volunteer Fire Department and Engine 58.
The large helicopter kicked up dust from the parched soccer field on the hot and sunny day in Kane. While the generals and staff members visited with the VanGiesen family, the helicopter took off for the Bradford Airport to refuel for the return trip.
Marchi said he would "definitely" return to Kane for funeral services for VanGiesen. Craig said he, too, would return for the services barring a conflict with a funeral for another Afghan casualty.

Pick up a copy of the Saturday, July 23, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.

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