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Letterkenny Army Depot machine named for fallen soldier McConnell

GREENE TOWNSHIP - Col. Gregory "Scott" McConnell thanked Letterkenny Army Depot for honoring his son's memory and other service members who gave their lives in service of their country.

McConnell addressed 50 people on Wednesday in front of a giant machine dedicated to his only son, the late Sgt. Andrew H. McConnell. Andrew died three years ago in Afghanistan after an improvised explosive device damaged his vehicle.

The machine, a welding positioner in Building 350, turns the entire hull of a route clearance vehicle. An RCV is equipped to find, analyze and dispose of IEDs.

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Col. McConnell steadied himself through a recurring wave of grief and loss as he began to speak.

"Andrew would say the dedication is not necessary," he said. "I agree the dedication is not necessary, but it's fitting."

The ceremony recognizes "the great team that stands behind our soldiers" and our soldiers' faith in their equipment, he said.

Andrew was among 2,161 American service members who died of wounds in Operation Enduring Freedom, Col. McConnell said. Each death has touched hundreds, if not thousands of people.

"It's not inconceivable they have touched over 200,000 Americans in some form or fashion," Col. McConnell said.

Since Andrew's death, the family has heard stories of his antics that make them laugh and stories of how he left an indelible mark on people, he said. "Most of these stories humble us and make us proud."

The dedication was the first for the family since Andrew's death on Sept. 14, 2009, Col. McConnell told a reporter. Col. McConnell, who is stationed at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, said it was emotionally difficult to appear in public on behalf of his son and other fallen soldiers.

He and Andrew's mother, Kathy, unveiled a plaque on the machine.

"Thank you for allowing us to do this for your son," Letterkenny commander Col. Victor Hagan told the McConnells.

The machine is within a few strides of another dedicated on Oct. 10 in memory of Master Sgt. Benjamin F. Bitner, a Greencastle-Antrim High School graduate who was killed on April 23, 2011, in Afghanistan.

Bryan Cramer, a Newburg man who works in Letterkenny's RCV Division, demonstrated the machine during the ceremony. A 25,000-pound bare aluminum hull turned right-side-up for easy welding.

Cramer told a reporter that he can scarcely hold back tears when he sees the plaque on the Bitner machine. Cramer has served in Afghanistan with the Pennsylvania National Guard 56th Stryker Brigade. McConnell was a member of the Army's 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

"I've eaten some of the same sand they did," Cramer said. "They paid a higher price than I did. It's an honor and privilege to work here. They sacrificed so much so I could continue to work here."

Letterkenny is converting RG33 troop carriers that come out of Afghanistan and Iraq into Panther-like Medium Mine Protected Vehicles, according to RCV Division chief Gary Rosenberry. His division employs about 120 people. The work grew out of Letterkenny's manufacture and maintenance of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles.

"I feel the work we do here directly affects what's going on over there," Cramer said. "We want to make sure it's done right. What little things we do here can save a life over there."

Other speakers remembered Sgt. McConnell at a lectern set apart from the rest of the Letterkenny shop with bright military flags and poster-sized photographs from Sgt. McConnell's life. Ventilation fans drummed overhead. RVCs moved through the shop.

"Andrew was as all-American as could be," said retired Master Sgt. Victor Kissoon, his high school soccer coach. "Andrew loved his family, friends and this country, unconditionally. I couldn't think of something more appropriate. Everyone who comes in contact with this equipment in one way or another will be touched by him."

Lt. Col. Jeffrey French, battalion commander, said Sgt. McConnell welcomed him as a new commander to the Stryker Brigade and showed him the ropes.

"I got the same treatment as a brother in arms," French said. "He didn't have a lot of cause to reach out to his battalion commander, but that is who he was. He strove to make things better for others. He always reached out to those in need. He always put others in front of him. Thank you (Sgt. McConnell) for taking me under your wing while you were in this world."

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