Jenn’s Sunday Sermon
My part of today’s sermon is short: Bring our troops home now. No more fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers should endure the hell that is encompassing a family in my area.
My prayer today comes from the heart: No more. Dear God, please, no more.
The first soldier from our county to die in Iraq was SPC Oliver Brown, a 19-year-old schoolmate of my oldest son’s. CWO John Priestner was the second Bradford County casualty.
Both are heroes because they did the job asked of them and died doing that job. But George W. Bush and his incompetent administration should be held account for every single death, American and Iraqi, caused by their lies and their piss-poor planning and their arrogance.
I went to school with John; he graduated four years ahead of me, and was my first big crush. Ours was a small school district with about 1200 kids, give or take a dozen, in grades K-12. Two buildings, elementary and Jr/Sr High. You got to know everyone in the building, not just in your grade. You weren’t friends with all of them, but you knew them on sight. In most cases, you knew their parents and their siblings as well. Close-knit, is how it’s always described, and it is.
And it was again yesterday, at the memorial service for John Priestner as family, friends, and alumni gathered to remember one of their own.
LERAYSVILLE (PA) — Day after day after day, it was the same.
Years ago, inside a farmhouse in a valley near LeRaysville, little John Priestner and his brother, Roger, got up. Soon a big yellow school bus roared up the road — the bus with “Northeast Bradford” and “18” on the side — winking yellow and red, and stopped. The boys climbed on. It carried them up a hill and through the countryside, then pulled into the half-circle driveway at the school.
The freckled little boys and other kids thump-thumped down the bus steps, up the wide front sidewalk and toward the glass doors. Perhaps … no, we’ll say probably … some days a knit cap was grabbed and tossed, or little feet scuffed tracks into snow or morning dew, or the walls rang with kids’ shouts and laughs.
They marched past those walls of stone and yellow brick, past the white “1970” sign on a front wall. Past the black “Northeast Bradford Elementary School” words above. Past the flagpole. …
Saturday afternoon, the U.S. flag on that pole was at half-staff.
A memorial service was going on inside Northeast Elementary for John R. Priestner. John died serving that flag. And this afternoon, perhaps it was fitting that people had gathered in the same school where John began learning and growing and living his life, to mourn and remember and honor him after his death.
CW4 John Priestner died Nov. 6, 2006, in a helicopter crash in Iraq. A pilot with Company A, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, he was in an AH-64D aircraft at the time.
Born in New Jersey, John grew up near LeRaysville and graduated from Northeast in 1982. He attended Keystone College, enlisted in the Air Force and later, the Army. Before Iraq, he served in Operation Desert Storm and Afghanistan.
John also had worked for Procter and Gamble and currently was living in Sanford, N.C., with his wife, Teresa Lutz Priestner, and daughters, Breanne, 14, and Megan, 10. Teresa’s also a Northeast graduate.
Guests packed the elementary school’s auditorium. In the middle of the stage, a wooden box displayed John’s flag casket and awards. “When loved ones become memories the memories become treasures,” read words written on a decorative stone. Two floral arrangements stood nearby, including red roses, white carnations and small, blue flowers. Dark ribbons around each bouquet read: “Our hero.”
And then there were photos. Hundreds of photos. Smaller photos on boards, larger framed photos on the stage. … John and Roger as tiny babies, in their parents’ arms. John and Roger as little tots, holding puppies. Young John in a cowboy hat. John in high school. John in a tux, a flower on his coat and his bride on his arm. John in a formal service photo, a flag behind him. John, Teresa and a young daughter in an Army plane. John and his collies. John and the girls in a swimming pool.
“I was in Afghanistan with John,” Kurt Etter explained, as he sat a couple of rows up, behind men wearing VFW caps. “We were pretty good friends.” John had been a pilot, Kurt his crew chief.
“He was an honest, really good friend.”
Kurt used to hang out at John’s house, shooting pool or playing darts. Today, he lives in Hornell, N.Y. He drove more than 100 miles to be here.
During the program, under soft lights, relatives and close friends spoke of John.
At the podium, Teresa explained her husband had been buried in Arlington National Cemetery. With country singer Toby Keith’s “Arlington” [It’s actually sung by Trace Adkins — Jenn] and other music accompanying, she showed slides of that service.
As Teresa sat with her arms around Breanne and Megan, the song played. “They gave me this plot of land, me and some other men … I’m on sacred ground and I’m in the best of company,” the voice sang. “I made it to Arlington.”
John had earlier requested to be buried in Arlington.
Shot on a rainy, gray day at the cemetery, photos showed the entrance, the chapel, two helicopters flying over, headstones. Soldiers carrying John’s flag-covered casket.
Roger, John’s fraternal twin, spoke of his brother, sometimes needing to pause between words.
The two had been in the original first-grade class at Northeast, he said. He’d heard many speak of his brother’s “loyalty, his sense of commitment, camaraderie and his can-do attitude.” The seeds of those traits were sown in their home, then cultivated by the community and their 4-H club, Roger said.
“In a very real sense … in a very real sense John was an Army of one,” before that was a slogan, he said. Family members laughed.
But John was playful, too. He sometimes teased Teresa, Roger revealed. “Teresa would go over there, give him a big hug and a kiss.” Clowning, John would act as if she’d passed on a terrible illness.
John often flew air-support missions for troops under fire. “His personal mission was as many as possible would come home alive.” Roger said. He choked up.
He never though he’d deliver his brother’s eulogy, Roger said — at age 42.
“I never thought I’d be the brother of a war hero … but I am.”
Close friend and classmate Glenn Pitcher shared humorous stories of John. “Parents are going to learn some new stuff about John!” he informed all.
Like the time John ate Glenn’s mother’s “scalloped critter” then asked “What is this?” They told him. He got sick.
Like the time, on the senior trip, he and John ended up in a holding cell. (No further explanation was offered.)
Like the time Glenn and, this time, Roger ended up in another holding cell, at the Six Flags park (firecrackers thrown from a skyride) and John, when he showed up, snooped through the security guards’ desk drawers.
Like the time there was an Ozzy Osborne rock concert (At this point, Roger started laughing) and they skipped school … and went hunting … and someone yelled “Woodchuck!” And John fell out the back.
John had a “passion for the hunt,” Glenn said.
John’s family will receive a memorial quilt. On that quilt, Glenn said, he wrote: “A friend in life, a friend for life and always.” He said he also could have written John had “a passion in life, a passion for life, a passion always.”
“I miss you,” Glenn ended.
John’s younger daughter, Megan, shared memories, too. Chatting eagerly, she told of her dad and his boat and his Web cam. Her dad helping her with math, dumping her and a friend off a tube while boating, dumping her MOM off a tube while boating, saying “Nope,” saying “Blahblah” …
“He was a hero,” Megan said. “I really loved him. He was really funny!”
John’s young niece Gracie Lutz performed a song for Teresa and her daughters. “I will be your candle on the water, my love for you will always burn,” she sang. “I’ll never let you go.”
Frank Zuckerman of Towanda said the families had met when their children attended St. Agnes School. “He was a best friend, he was a son, a husband and a father,” Frank said. If we remember John for just one moment each day, he suggested, he’ll never be forgotten.
To conclude, Linnea Priestner, John’s mother, took the podium.
“He wasn’t the brightest child in school, he wasn’t the most obedient,” she admitted. “But he had a passion. … He achieved his goals.”
She added: “This is my mission — traditional family values and that our children develop a dream.”
After the service, friends and family mingled.
Richard Priestner, John’s father, was pleased with the community’s support and proud of Roger’s part in the service. And John — “he was so loyal.”
Bill Gallagher, who grew up near the Priestners, remembered playing football with them and another neighbor, Dan MacNamera. The four rough-housed so hard they sometimes ripped each other’s sweatshirts. “Never wore a sweatshirt after that!”
Jacob Lutz, 6, remembered his “Uncle Hawk.” “He was a good man,” he stated in his light voice.
“He was a hero.”
“He was just always happy, always smiling,” classmate Roberta Cook Seeley said, as she stood with friends in the lobby. Suzanne Bryan Townsend remembered John’s smile — and eyes. For Terri Jagger, the memory’s of John playing basketball with classmate Keith Bonin.
Theresa Edsell Krymowski heard the “Arlington” song one day on the radio, she said. She had to turn it off. “I lost it.”
On a table near the women stand photo boards. In the center of one hangs a shot of John in his green dress uniform — four gold buttons down the middle, “Priestner” tag on one side, ribbons on the other. John stands straight and serious. And without a doubt, proud.
Outside, the sun shines on the sidewalk, circular driveway, brick walls. And the lowered flag.
“It was beautiful,” Teresa, wearing a U.S. flag pin and U.S. flag necklace, said of the service. “It was good for John. It was all about John. That’s what I wanted. …
“He is a true American hero.”