Saturday, June 02, 2007

Joseph M. Weiglein remembered by elementary school

He was "Joe the Soldier" for the kids at Haviland Avenue Elementary School in tiny Audubon, N.J., a hometown boy fighting for them in far-away Iraq.

They eagerly adopted Joe as "their soldier." At Christmas, the school's 250 students packed up boxes of Tastykakes, cards and ornaments and mailed them to his squad of nine soldiers.

A big photo of Joe and his men just before they shipped out a year ago hung on the school's office door.

And now Staff Sgt. Joseph Michael Weiglein, 31, born and raised and schooled in close-knit Audubon, has died. His mother said he was killed Tuesday in an explosion in a town south of Baghdad.

When Joe came home on a 10-day leave in January, he visited the school and answered endless questions at a packed school assembly.

Where did he live? What did he eat? Was it scary? The students, who dressed in red, white and blue for him, loved the slides he showed them of the soldiers opening their gifts and cards. They gave him hand-made flags to bring back to the others.

"The roar of the crowd when he went into the auditorium that day, you would've sworn a rock star was going in," said Ellen Weiglein, Joe's mother. "They were so joyful to see him."

Yesterday, word of his death was just starting to ripple through the halls of Haviland, which goes from preschool to sixth grade.

Carleene Slowik, the school's principal, said counselors would be on hand to talk to students, but there was no plan for a schoolwide announcement.

"This is a hard one, believe me," Slowik said.

Yesterday, she said a fourth-grade student was getting a drink of water from the fountain outside her office.

"She said, 'Dr. Slowik, it's so very sad about Joe, isn't it?' "

"Then she said, 'You look sad,' and she came over and hugged me."

Michael Weiglein said his middle child had been in the Army for 12 years. He had moved around a lot - South Korea, Kansas, Kuwait, Tennessee and Georgia. His last assignment was as an infantry staff sergeant, based with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y.

Michael said that before moving to Fort Drum, his son was working as a recruiter, but he longed to return to the regular infantry.

"He was not to be behind a desk," said Ellen Weiglein. "He needed to be up and doing."

His parents said he told them that his squad recently went out on patrols, looking for three U.S. soldiers who were abducted earlier this month.

"He believed in what he was doing," Ellen Weiglein said.

Also surviving are his sisters, Catharine Albanese and Michelle Hubbard.

At his old school, the Haviland students plan to honor him once more.

Slowik said the school will wait to hear from his wife, Jennifer, of Mexico, N.Y., to find out her wishes before planning their tribute.

"When we adopted Joe and brought him into our Haviland family, in the back of my mind, I thought, 'What if something happens? What am I going to say?' "

"We know Joe had a hard job to do," Slowik added. "We saw where he was and he was protecting us.

"And this is part of it."

From the Philadelphia Inquirer

Related Link:
Joseph M. Weiglein dies of 'wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated near his position during a dismounted patrol'