To the editor:
My wife Julie and I recently visited Fort McHenry in Baltimore where, in the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” our American national anthem, after seeing the Stars and Stripes prevailing through the smoke after the battle. It was a very moving experience for us to be there and to witness the historical site firsthand. It was also a reminder to me of the sacrifices that my family, like most American families, has made to protect and to defend our country.
My brother Tim Stegna’s middle name is Ernest, for our great uncle Ernest Stegena (the old spelling of our last name). Pvt. Ernest Stegena served in World War I as a United States Marine in Belgium, where he helped to liberate Europe of tyranny. Ernie’s eyes were burnt with poisonous gas in the battlefield, which forced him to use artificial tears for the rest of his life. At his funeral service, his casket was draped in the Stars and Stripes.
In 1943, our uncle Francis served in the United States Army Air Corps as a flight instructor training young fighter pilots during World War II. On Sept. 28, 1943, one of Francis’ students got their BT-15 Valiant trainer into an uncontrollable spin at low altitude. Lt. Stegna got the student safely parachuted out of the airplane but couldn’t get himself out. His airplane crashed in a farmer’s lonely field just outside of Walnut Ridge, Ark. Francis was young and strong; he lived for several hours afterward, eventually passing away.
The telegraph office in my uncle’s hometown of Girard, Ohio soon received the telegram meant to inform my grandparents, Genevieve and Frank Stegna, of their son’s death. Just as the telegraph manager read the incoming telegram, he saw Frank Stegna through the windows as he walked right by the office, oblivious to what had happened to his son, and what was about to happen. The very kind telegraph office manager immediately contacted a Catholic priest requesting that he accompany him to deliver the telegram. (I personally cannot fathom what my family went through that night.)
Days later, Frank Stegna had to travel down to Arkansas to escort his son’s body home on a train. When he asked the Army escort if he could see his son for the last time, Frank was told “Mr. Stegna, you don’t want to see your son.” Francis’ body lay in state in the Stegna family’s home until the funeral service, draped in the Stars and Stripes.
In 1944 our great uncle Jimmy Krispinsky served in the United States Army Air Corps as a Consolidated B-24 Liberator pilot in the Mediterranean theater of operations. “Liberator,” isn’t that the perfect name for an American hero’s airplane?
On March 2, 1944, Lt. Krispinsky’s bomber was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire over the Anzio beachhead. Some members of his crew were wounded; one young man lost his arm. Jimmy ordered five of his crew to parachute to safety; the remaining men either tried to help Jimmy nurse the crippled bomber back to the base safely or couldn’t bail out due to their wounds.
Because the bomber was so badly damaged, it was extremely difficult to fly and would therefore be especially difficult to land. Upon landing the worst thing happened; the airplane’s nose wheel dug into the runway’s dirt at high speed, causing the airplane to flip over and explode. Jimmy Krispinsky and the others all died in the ensuing fire.
Days later my great-grandmother, Mary Krispinsky, “Gramma Picky,” not knowing what had happened yet, was at church in downtown Youngstown, Saint Stanislaus, where she loved to go because the priests said Catholic Mass in Slovak.
On her way home and after she got off the bus, an unknown man followed her down her street, which frightened her. When she entered her house she was relieved to see that he continued on down the street. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. The first thing that Gramma Picky saw was the familiar face of a friendly neighbor that she knew. Accompanying her friend was the man who’d followed her. He held the telegram. As was sometimes the practice, the man had asked a neighbor to accompany him to help console the recipient from the devastating news. Lt. James A. Krispinsky was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. At his funeral his casket was draped in the Stars and Stripes.
My family has had numerous men serve our great country. My father-in-law, Ralph Bond, flew B-24 Liberators during WWII as well. My godfather, Don McCloud, served in the United States Army in Japan at the end of the war and afterward. My uncle Thomas Dalzell, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps, served our country for 33 years with a stint in Vietnam, where his leg was broken in five places.
To give you an idea of how much my uncle Tom loves America, he was drafted by the Chicago Bears football team in 1956 after his graduation from Virginia Tech. He was offered a $6,000 signing bonus personally by Bears owner George Halas. Tom Dalzell instead enlisted into the Marine Corps. Someday, and I hope that it’s many years from now, his casket too will be draped with the Stars and Stripes.
The Stegna family unconditionally respects the American flag and what she stands for. We don’t believe that the flag itself gives one the permission to disrespect it in any way. We can’t and we won’t think that way. Too many people in our family have suffered and died defending the country that the American flag represents and too many good people in our family have grieved their losses for the rest of their lives.
If the overpaid prima donnas in today’s professional sports really want to impress the Stegna family with their passion for their causes, they will confront the president of the United States or the attorney general with the United States today instead of refusing to stand for the national anthem. Disrespecting an American flag and the American national anthem disrespects the men in our family who paid the ultimate price for our country, and we won’t stand for that!
Lawrence E. Stegna Jr.