On a sunny and clear Veterans Day morning, scores of mourners lined Broadway from Lancaster to the Charles Meyer Funeral Home, waving American flags and paying a final tribute to a soldier from Alden who earned a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor that his family didn’t know about until his death.
On the same morning, across the state in the tiny North Country Town of Moriah, townspeople raised flags and adorned trees with yellow ribbons on trees on Route 9N and Main Street to welcome home the body of another hometown hero.
The same sad scene will be repeated yet again Tuesday, this time in Corning along Route 352, for a third soldier who died with the other two in Afghanistan last week.
Sgt. Brett E. Gornewicz, Staff Sgt. Dain T. Venne and Spc. Ryan P. Jayne, all young men in their 20s from across upstate New York, were killed Nov. 3 when their armored personnel carrier struck a roadside bomb. They were patrolling for the explosives in the Paktia province of Afghanistan, located on the border of Pakistan. They are among 286 U.S. military personnel who died in the line of duty in Afghanistan this year.
Sgt. Brett E. Gornewicz
Gornewicz, 27, probably would have cringed at all the attention his passing has brought, his friends and family said last week as they prepared for his funeralin St. John Catholic Church in Alden at 11 a.m. today.
“He was very private,” said his sister, Cassandra Cranston. “He was always like that. Even when I’d ask him, ‘Hey, can I get your Army discount on something?’ He didn’t care about that. He didn’t want people to say thank you. That wasn’t why he did it.”
He did it, she said, because he “thought of it as a job and his duty.”
Gornewicz, like Jayne, was a member of the 680th Engineer Company, Army Reserve, based in Canandaigua. They were among a couple dozen soldiers who were temporarily transferred to the 444th Engineer Company in Oswego, which had been called up for deployment. It was Gornewicz’s second tour overseas. He served in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. He had recently been promoted to sergeant.
Capt. Karl Waelder, commander of the 680th, said he knew Gornewicz “as a quiet guy.”
“Everybody around him knew he was smart and he was a leader,” Waelder said. “He just had an quiet air about him. And I guess people trusted him.”
After finding out about her brother’s death, Cranston flew from North Carolina with Gornewicz’s girlfriend. The sister has been sleeping in her brother’s old room in their parents’ home in Alden, where the walls are still covered with G.I. Joe wallpaper.
Cranston believes her brother’s aversion to attention dates back to those days when he was playing with G.I. Joe action figures and dressing up just about every Halloween as an “army guy.”
With his red hair and freckles, Gornewicz’s cheeks were often pinched by relatives who told him how cute he was.
“He would get so mad,” Cranston remembered.
When Gornewicz left for Afghanistan, his co-workers at the Tonawanda company where he worked as a computer-aided designer threw him a farewell ceremony.
“He didn’t feel he deserved it,” she said.
And when he returned home from Afghanistan in August on R&R, he had his family cancel a reception they wanted to throw for his homecoming.
In a rare moment of openness during that last visit, he told some of his family members about a particularly dangerous situation he had encountered a couple of months earlier.
“From what I remember my brother telling me, they were ambushed,” Cranston said. “Bullets were flying. He thought: That was it. From what I understand, he carried somebody out of it and saved his life.”
But true to his nature, Gornewicz, who often called home, never told his family that he received the Bronze Star with “V” device in September for what he had done.
“My parents didn’t even know about it until he passed,” his sister said.
“There’s your modesty,” said his friend Joe Weisbeck, who served with Gornewicz in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
He hadn’t even heard anything about the firefight.
Weisbeck, who is from Alden but is now a registered nurse at Brooke Army Medical Center in Houston, recalled how he and Gornewicz had grown close after they signed up with the Army Reserve. They both served in the 680th Engineer Company and were deployed to Iraq together.
“We were in the same patrol group,” he said.
They were bunkmates and did guard duty shifts together.
“When you’re stuck in a cement box for 12 hours, a lot comes out,” he said.
They loved more than anything to talk about and share music, particularly country music.
“They were always the ones about God, family and country,” Weisbeck said. “He took those messages to heart.”
He recalled their harrowing missions clearing hidden bombs from roads.
“They said always remain hypervigilant. Don’t get relaxed,” Weisbeck said. “But it did become the everyday. You were almost numb to the idea.”
On their missions, the patrols headed out on roads and used sophisticated technology – a robotic arm, high-powered cameras – to detect disturbances in the ground.
“We cleared several,” he said. “We missed a couple, too ... You can’t get them all.”
Luckily, the ones they missed in Iraq were poorly made.
“Basically, a lot of accelerant,” Weisbeck said. “A flash, more or less.”
When they detonate, “there’s no warning,” Weisbeck said.
“It happens, and then it’s over. You recollect, and you assess your posted situation ... Is everybody good? We’d check in. You’re good. Vehicles are good. Keep moving.”
Gornewicz always handled those situations well.
“He always kept a professional attitude,” Weisbeck said. “This is what we’re here to do. This is what we’re going to do. Might as well put on a happy face.”
Weisbeck doesn’t know exactly what happened Nov. 3 in Afghanistan.
“I don’t want to,” he said.
Weisbeck was planning to be back in Western New York for the funeral.
Above all, he wanted Gornewicz remembered as the “modest, humble and genuine” man that he knew his friend to be.
Staff Sgt. Dain T. Venne
The day he was killed, Venne, 29, was supposed to have been back home in Port Henry, a village of just over 1,000 in the Town of Moriah, located on the western shore of Lake Champlain.
“That’s the kind of individual he was,” said Tom Scozzafava, the town supervisor, who had known Venne since he was a baby. “He gave up his R&R because ... there was a group of young recruits that had just arrived on site. He felt compelled to stay behind and properly train them and attempt to educate them on the duties and responsibilities they were assigned to.”
Venne joined the Army Reserve shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“He decided he wanted to do something about it,” Scozzafava said. He was a student at St. Lawrence University at the time.
Venne served one tour in Iraq and was called to duty again last year. He was from the 366th Engineer Company in Canton, another sister company, and was transferred to the 444th.
As a youth, Venne had been a standout athlete, making the 2000 New York All-State Football Team as a running back. As an adult, he coached youth football while working in construction.
He also was a volunteer firefighter who was awarded a commendation medal for saving three campers from floods last year.
His fire chief, James Hughes, recounted what happened that day:
It was the night of Aug. 28, 2011, and Tropical Storm Lee’s pounding rains had caused severe flooding in and around Port Henry.
The town’s beach and campground were ordered evacuated, but the fire department received word that there were campers stuck in floodwaters.
Firefighters drove toward the beach “only to find out that the bridge that we normally cross was impassable,” Hughes said. “It was flooding.”
Trees and live wires were down all around them.
Hughes and the other firefighters restaged at a nearby Amtrak station south of the beach area. A captain, lieutenant and Venne put on their cold-water immersion suits, grabbed their ropes and harnesses and made their way to the campgrounds from the railroad tracks.
The firefighters formed a human chain, and Venne waded through chest-deep water to the three victims, who included an elderly woman in severe respiratory distress.
One by one, Venne carried the victims on his shoulders to a rail utility car they found nearby. They were able to bring the car along the tracks to the station.
“He was a perfect gentleman,” Hughes said. “A super nice guy. He was the best of the best. You couldn’t ask for anyone nicer.”
Venne is the first military casualty from the Moriah area since the Vietnam War, his loved ones noted.
Venne’s funeral is set for 11 a.m. Tuesday in St. Patrick’s Church in Port Henry.
Spc. Ryan P. Jayne
At 22, Jayne was the youngest of the three men.
Jayne was still in basic training when he learned he was headed for Afghanistan, Waelder said.
Jayne was born in Elmira and lived in Pennsylvania before moving to Corning. He graduated from Corning East High School, where he was awarded the Judi McCort Memorial Scholarship for exemplifying courage, hard work, responsibility and dependability.
He was a student at Corning Community College when he signed up with the Army Reserve in September 2010.
Jayne had just come home on leave in October.
His stepfather told a WETM news reporter that Jayne had “found his way” in the Army.
“He was happy. He was really, really happy,” his stepfather said. “He was so proud of himself that he was able to serve his country and fight for what he believed was right.”
Jayne’s funeral will be at 8 p.m. Wednesdayin the auditorium of his alma mater, Corning East High School.