a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, April 27, 2009

Kudos to a coworker

Troops Leave for Iraq, originally uploaded by Celeste Van Kirk.

Congratulations to Observer-Reporter photographer Celeste Van Kirk for winning a spot news award today from Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors.
Celeste attacks every assignment with enthusiasm, a warm heart and a pleasant attitude.
Her winning photo, above, was shot in September of Justin Prettiman of Buffalo Township, a specialist with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, hugging his daughter, Nicole, 3, before his deployment to Iraq. It accompanied this story:

By Michael Jones, Staff writer

Justin Prettiman knelt down and hugged his 3-year-old daughter, holding her in his arms moments before boarding a bus that would initiate his journey to Iraq.

The specialist in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard had wanted to be a soldier since he was a toddler. But nothing fully prepared the 22-year-old Buffalo Township man to say goodbye to his young daughter, Nicole.

"It's the hardest thing a soldier has to do, in my opinion," Prettiman said, his voice cracking slightly as he spoke. "Everything else I can deal with."

He stood in a circle with his parents, Fritz and Frank Prettiman, and girlfriend, Jessica Hensler. His daughter held a coiled American flag.

Not knowing what he would encounter during his first tour in Iraq, other soldiers advised him on what to expect while in a war zone and, most importantly, counseled him on saying goodbye.

"I've been talking to them about it, and they have helped me out quite a bit," Prettiman said. "It's tough, but they've helped prepare me for this day."

Prettiman and 100 of his fellow guardsmen from the 2nd Infantry Brigade's regional armory in South Franklin Township left on seven buses early Friday morning on a cross-state tour to pick up other soldiers. The brigade, part of the 28th Infantry Division, will join the 56th Stryker Brigade in eastern Pennsylvania before training at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss.

They are expected to deploy to Iraq in January and will remain there for less than a year. Where they will be based and the scope of their mission is unknown, but they are part of a "full-spectrum counterinsurgency" combat team.

Escorted by two state police motorcycles and a couple of police cruisers, the first white and blue touring buses rolled from the armory in South Franklin shortly after 8 a.m.

"We kinda don't know what's going on yet, so we're still getting everything straightened out with the mission," said Sgt. Ben Vorpahl of Monessen. "We've got a good group of guys here. We can handle anything. You get tight. You've got to trust your buddy to watch your back."

This is the second deployment to Iraq for the 29-year-old prison guard at the State Correctional Institution in Fayette County. Two years ago, he and many others in the unit were sent to the volatile Al-Anbar province.

Vorpahl's family was not able to travel to the armory to say their goodbyes. Instead, his wife, Corrina, was at home caring for their 3-month-old son, Eric, who was feeling ill. Although Vorpahl is somewhat accustomed to being deployed, it is especially difficult for his 5-year-old son, Evan, who has now watched his father go to war twice.

Vorpahl stood beside Sgt. Josh Cook, a 21-year-old student at California University of Pennsylvania, as they waited to board their bus. Cook, who also was deployed to Iraq two years ago, said they would help the "younger guys" during their first tours.

The two talked as they stood around their gear and slowly smoked their cigarettes.

"I think I'm missing out on a lot, but I'd rather be doing this while I'm young. It's for a good cause," Cook said.

"I don't have a wife or kids, so I don't have it as hard as this guy over here," he added and pointed to Vorpahl.

The atmosphere around the buses was somber compared to the joyous homecomings that have been celebrated at this armory.

Sgt. Ryan Clark, 26, of Rochester played with his 3-year-old son, Ryan Jr., and talked with his wife, Rachel.

"Just doing what my country asked me to do. It's a bittersweet day," Clark said. "You join the military to serve your country, but it's hard to leave your friends and family."

Nearby, other families hugged, posed for pictures or just stood in silence waiting for the buses to leave. One young couple kissed and then hugged each other, embracing for a few extra seconds before the soldier nodded his head and walked away.

"It's not easy, but he's wanted to do this since he was 3 years old," Prettiman's mother, Fritz, said. "It's just hard because he has Nicole. This was his dream, and we're just here to back him."

Before leaving, Prettiman hugged his father, Frank, and shook his hand. His dad gave him a thumbs up, reached for his arm and held it for a moment.

The son slowly backed away and stepped onto the bus.


Mike Jones said...

You should have seen Celeste that morning. She was all over the place looking for great shots while talking to the soldiers and their families. She nailed that photo of Justin Prettiman and his daughter, along with another photo of Ryan Clark playing with his son, Ryan Jr., before boarding the bus. Great job, Celeste.

Amanda Gillooly said...

That's a great pic, and awesome news for an awesome photographer. I love working with Celeste -- she always gets something that has a lot of emotion...her shots always help tell the story in a way words really can't. Cheesee? Maybe. But true.