They laughed, sometimes cried, but always remembered an American hero.
About 100 people — in crisp military uniforms, patriotic shirts and everyday clothes — gathered in Derry Community Park on Saturday to pay their respects to Army Sgt. 1st Class Earl Fillmore Jr.
Twenty years ago, as a member of the elite Delta Force, Fillmore died in the battle of Mogadishu while part of a task force that was fighting to reach the site of a downed U.S. helicopter in Somalia.
The 1983 Derry Area High School graduate was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for the distinguished gallantry he displayed in the engagement that inspired the movie “Black Hawk Down.”
“I can't describe it,” his mother, Shirley Fillmore, said of the ceremony. “It's just awesome.”
Fillmore said she didn't know until shortly before the service that it was going to be held.
Her daughter, Brenda Perry of Unity, said she, sisters Mary Vallorani and Sharon Schmucker, both of Derry, and other family members wanted to conduct the remembrance locally for their mother and other family and friends who couldn't attend ceremonies at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
“It's nothing fancy, just from the heart,” she said.
As a member of A Company of the 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, Fillmore rose to the rank of Sgt. 1st Class and at 24 he became the youngest soldier to be accepted into Delta Force. His football jersey and other memorabilia are part of a display dedicated last year in his high school's fitness center, and a New Cumberland medical clinic has been named in his honor.
“It's sad, but it's brought so much happiness, too,” Perry said of her brother's death at 28. “The things that have happened to us because of Earl, it's amazing.”
During the ceremony, members of VFW Post 444 in Derry presented a wreath, as did Fillmore's sisters at a stone memorial in his honor in the park.
Red, white and blue balloons were released in his memory at the end of the program.
“He's the reason I'm in the military today,” said Sgt. 1st Class Angela Burd, Sgt. Fillmore's niece. “It means a tremendous amount to me.
“He was 10 years older than me,” added Burd, who spoke during the remembrance. “He was kind of my idol. I loved how he loved the Army, and that's why I joined.”
Others who spoke during the ceremony remembered the Fillmore as a tenacious football player with “great heart.” They called him “tough,” “a winner,” but recalled him as a little “mischievous.”
“I think about what a man he was able to be to do something like that,” Shirley Fillmore said before the ceremony. “He was my little boy. He grew up to be such a man. I can't believe everything he did.”
Bob Stiles / firstname.lastname@example.org.