The funeral services for Army Pfc. John J. Sitarz of Weirton, who’ll be buried Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery, will help to connect the past with the present.
Nancy Sitarz, a niece born long after the 19-year-old was killed during World War II and who knows of him only through family stories shared, works as the veterinary medical officer at Fort Myer Veterinary Treatment Facility in Fort Myer, Va.
A mere five minutes away from the cemetery’s entrance, the government military facility is where Sitarz has worked since 2014 in a job that involves, among other things, tending to the horses that pull the caissons and help deliver departed service members to their final resting places.
A horse-drawn caisson will be taking the remains of her uncle to plot 60 in the 639-acre military cemetery.
The what-are-the-odds-of-that equine connection and coincidence won’t be lost on the 1970 graduate of Madonna High School as she and other family members from the Weirton area bid a final farewell to their loved one and reflect on his service.
FINALLY ACCOUNTED FOR
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced in a press release issued in June that Sitarz had finally been accounted for May 27, 2020.
On Oct. 27, the U.S. Army Human Resources Command Public Affairs Office announced Sitarz’s remains would be interred at Arlington National Cemetery with funeral services to be conducted by Everly-Wheatley Funerals and Cremation of Alexandria, Va., prior to that.
In November 1944, the son of Joseph and Sofia Ciak Sitarz was assigned to Company L, 3rdBattalion, 110th Infantry Regiment, 28thInfantry Division. His unit was engaged in battle with German forces near Germeter, Germany, in the Hurtgen Forest, when he was declared missing in action on Nov. 2, 1944.
As a result of the ongoing war, Sitarz could not be recovered, and he was declared killed in action on Nov. 3, 1945.
The American Graves Registration Command conducted several investigations in the Hurtgen area between 1946 and 1950, but was unable to recover or identify Sitarz’s remains. He was declared non-recoverable in 1951, the news release notes.
While studying unresolved American losses in the Hurtgen area, a historian with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency determined that one set of unidentified remains, designated X-2785 Neuville, recovered from a minefield west of Germeter in 1946, possibly belonged to Sitarz. The remains, which had been buried in Ardennes American Cemetery in 1949, were disinterred in 2018 and sent to the DPAA laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., for identification.
Sitarz was accounted for by the DPAA after his remains were identified using circumstantial evidence, as well as dental, anthropological, mitochondrial DNA, Y chromosome DNA and autosomal DNA analysis.
His name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission site in Hombourg, Belgium, along with others still missing from World War II. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.
When Nancy, a daughter of the late Stanley and Catherine Sitarz, learned that her father’s brother had at long last been accounted for more than 70 years after his death, her reaction was one of “awe.”
“It was also unbelievable because I had heard people try to find all the MIAs and POWs before and always had been disappointed,” Nancy said. “It was always what my aunt wanted as a final wish from her mother.”
A DREAM FULFILLED
Ever since she was 4, Nancy wanted to be a veterinarian, a dream her parents supported.
“At the time in the early 1960s, everyone wanted their girls to be nuns or sisters, and my mother said, ‘No, she doesn’t need to be that,’ and at the time, you couldn’t be anything beyond a nurse or work in the mill,” she said. “Women were just not thought of at the time that you could do this (be a veterinarian.)”
Nancy’s mother was a stay-at-home mom. Her father, who died in 2018, worked in the strip steel department at Weirton Steel.
“My dad was a steelworker and that was so helpful because he was able to save, and I didn’t have any debt when I went to school, and that was just wonderful.”
Nancy earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Purdue University as well as her DVM, graduating in 1978.
Her veterinary career has spanned more than 40 years.
“I came to the Army (job) in 2005, after an equine and food animal practice of 25 years,” she said of a time that involved treating horses belonging to retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver North; Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy; and Michael Marriott, one of the world’s leading rosarians who had his horses stabled at a barn in Great Falls, Va.
Nancy came to work at the Fort Myer Veterinary Treatment Facility after first having been at Fort Belvoir Veterinary Treatment Facility about 20 miles away. Between both spots, there are 66 horses, 40 of them at Fort Myer for the mission, the rest at Fort Belvoir, where they are used for training soldiers how to ride and how to take care of them.
Each has a branch chief, who is a captain in the Army, and Nancy is a civilian working as a Department of Defense VMO or veterinary medical officer. The facility provides nonemergency veterinary care for the pets of military active-duty members, retirees and dependents.
Nancy described herself as “the continuity of the clinic” as the captain will be called away for food inspections and other varied duties.
“Two veterinarians work together on the equine and military working dogs and the privately owned animals of all military branches,” she explained of the staffing. “If emergency surgery is needed, we have access to an equine referral practice, and the dogs are done by board-certified surgeons.”
“What happens is usually I am doing privately owned animals in the morning and afternoon,” she said, noting that horse care includes routine shots, vaccinations, blood tests and wormings, for example.
Then again, it can be middle-of-the-night colicking, or horses being horses, cuts and bruises, a sore foot or occasional lameness.
“And most of the time, since they wear a lot of tack, sometimes you get rubs, especially when it’s hot and the saddle hits the horse, and then it gets hot, very hot in the cemetery.”
That she would have treated horses used for a caisson is nothing unusual at the caisson stables themselves within Fort Myers next to Arlington National Cemetery or even at the cemetery itself.
“What happens is if they have a horse who is either colicking or having a problem, I have to drive out there, but I’m real close because my facility is just about 5 minutes away from the entrance to the cemetery, and there are only three or four spots where the horses actually stop and wait for the service to be over with,” Nancy said, “so what happens is then you go over there, fix them up and trade them off. We have extras in the barn,” she said of the white and black horses used. “The people who have the military honors are the ones who decide if they want a white or a black horse,” she said.
All the horses were black until June 9, 1981, when 10 Lipizzaner horses were donated to the caisson, according to Nancy.
“They were accepted by the then-secretary of the Army. They were in the lead element for the inaugural parade for President Ronald Reagan.”
Nancy said the caisson team consists of seven horses, four riders and one serviceman who has the colors of the deceased.
“Six horses are pulling the caisson. Three have riders, and the other horses are riderless and would have been outfitted with supplies or were intended as replacements. The two horses closest to the caisson are the wheel horses. They act as the brakes. The front two horses are the leads, and the middle two horses are the swing horses. The seventh horse is a guide horse,” she explained, noting she’s not sure what color horses will be used for her uncle.
Either way, the odds seem slim in this situation for one relative to have treated the horses that ultimately pull a caisson bringing another relative to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.
“Exactly,” Nancy responded during a phone interview.
“It seems almost like a full cycle, you know, and you always wonder about what our purpose is in life, and you don’t want to get all crazy but maybe there’s a reason why we’re where we’re supposed to be,” she said.
A TIME FOR FAMILY
There will be a number of relatives on hand to pay their respects to Sitarz.
“We are expecting about 40 to 50 people,” Nancy said, noting that group would include her sister, Anne Sitarz Cary of Richmond, Va., and cousins.
Her aunt, Bernice Sitarz Krayzel, is the last of the Sitarz siblings.
“She lives in Hubbard, Ohio, staying with my cousin,” Nancy said of her 91-year-old aunt who is unlikely to attend.
“We’re going to have a big dinner at my house after the wake. The wake is on Monday, and then we’re going to have a bunch of Polacks at my house, and the next day is the interment,” Nancy said.
Nancy’s son, Alex Spalding of Akron, will play the clarinet.
“We’re going to get one of the cousins to sing, and I have my parish priest who is coming to say the rosary,” she added.
Her other son, John Spalding of Weirton, who is named after her uncle, will be among local residents attending along with cousins Bernadette Kester and Terri Krayzel of Weirton and Karen and Anthony Poszywak of Follansbee.
Like other relatives, Nancy only knows her “Uncle Johnny” through family memories and stories from his generation.
“When you see pictures of him, he looks like he’s just a little guy, very skinny, and the best story was he really wanted to go to war, he wanted to fight, he wanted to have his mom and the family proud of him,” Nancy said. “What happened is he was so skinny he kept eating bananas to make the weight to go to war,” she said.
“The stories we hear, too, were during that time, he was working in clothing to try to give supplies to the soldiers, and one of either the colonels or someone had talked to John and said, ‘Hey, you don’t have to go to war if you want to stay here and help out here because you’re doing a good job,’ and he said, ‘No, I want to go off and fight.’ That was kind of like, wow, he had that chance to not go to war,” Nancy said.
“He was kind of a joker,” Nancy continued. “He really enjoyed making people laugh, and he did kind of crazy things. It’s hard to imagine being goofy in the Depression, but he really enjoyed being a little prankster,” she said.
Nancy’s father was the second of 10 children. He was preceded in death by Helen, Joseph, Mary and Theresa, who died as children. He also was preceded in death by, in addition to his brother John, his sisters Ann Sitarz Kosin, Laura Sitarz Kolanko and Genevieve Sitarz Poszywak.
Nancy suspects her father and uncle were very close.
“Bernice was the youngest, and so my dad would also goof around with Uncle Johnny. I don’t remember him saying too much. They were typical kids who would have worked and try to help with the family store on Avenue F in Weirton and that was where Sacred Heart of Mary Parish was and so they helped their dad with the store,” Nancy said.
The name of the Sitarz store, she said, was “Polish store for Dry Goods, Men and Women Haberdashery and Footwear for the entire Family.”
“Pretty catchy name,” Nancy noted.
“I guess they were mostly working, and then my dad was starting at the mill at 13 because he had to support the family. His dad had died from heart issues. I think what happened is it was a big family and the mother went and worked at the church and I think these kids just ran amuck,” she said.
“It just broke his heart, I think,” she said of her dad’s reaction to his brother’s death at 19. “I think they were very close because they were the guys and there were a bunch of women in the family so these were the two guys.”
Her thoughts on the approaching ceremony?
“It’s pretty much surreal,” Nancy said, noting the family is grateful for the work of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
“When I tell people, it’s kind of like amazing that they think it’s so amazing, and I see a lot of these people. I’ve seen Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she was buried here, all of these other people who had been buried, they had found some Civil War people who were in one of the sunken ships from the Civil War and they were buried here, so it just seems like it’s, wow, all these famous people and then there’s going to be my Uncle Johnny, who’s just this kid from Weirton, W.Va., and so it is surreal. You don’t realize how special it is,” she said.
The Arlington ceremony will be solemn, according to Nancy, and involve a Catholic priest and a brief prayer service.
“Then the caisson will take John to his final resting space to be interred in plot 60,” Nancy said.
“It means it’s closure for sure, and it’s such a sad happiness,” she said.
“We never met Uncle Johnny, but we want to respect him, and we are so proud of him,” she said. “It just kind of unites us in that this is a very special time and a special guy, and it’s sad that we never met him, but he’s remembered now.”
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