Students in N.J. Mourn a Soldier They Adopted

By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 9, 2007

For the children of Haviland Avenue Elementary School in Audubon, N.J., Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Weiglein was their soldier. They sent him care packages filled with Tastykakes and beef jerky, and handmade Christmas decorations and letters. When he came to visit them in January, the entire school assembled to see him. And the entire school gathered again this week to silently honor Weiglein as his funeral procession made its way past his former school Wednesday.

Yesterday, the Audubon native was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, 150 miles from his home town. Weiglein was the 345th military member killed in Iraq to be buried at Arlington.

More than a dozen cars and two big buses carried mourners to the 31-year-old's grave site. Among them were his parents, Michael and Ellen Weiglein, and wife, Jennifer.

Weiglein was killed May 29, when a makeshift bomb detonated near him while on foot patrol in Ilbu Falris, Iraq, according to the Department of Defense. The blast also killed Sgt. Richard V. Correa, 25, of Honolulu. The men were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), based at Fort Drum, N.Y.

Weiglein joined the Army shortly after graduating from Audubon High School in 1994. He held a number of jobs, ending up as a recruiter in Tennessee, but it wasn't a good fit.

"He was not to be behind a desk," his mother, Ellen, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He needed to be up and doing."

The small town of Audubon, located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, has a population of less than 10,000, so Weiglein had connections and roots throughout the town. His childhood best friend was Mike Nolan, whose mother is a secretary at the elementary school. They came up with the idea of having the kids write to Weiglein, and that turned into several boxes packed with snacks and letters for him and his unit.

Weiglein was so touched that when he came home briefly in January, he told Nolan that he wanted to thank the children personally. When he arrived at the school, he was surprised to learn that an assembly had been organized in his honor, said Carleene Slowik, the school's principal.

He was greeted by more than 250 students wearing red, white and blue and was treated like a rock star, Slowik said. He presented a slide show and answered every one of their questions. He had wanted to write more to the students but had been kept extra busy with missions.

"He's the hometown hero," Slowik said. "And our kids, it's such a real, personal thing -- and now they know somebody. It's not just some anonymous fighting going on, it's somebody they know that's not coming back."

So when the town wanted to honor Weiglein, the elementary students who had sent him Christmas cards went to work, taking 3,100 flags and adorning them with pictures of Weiglein, Slowik said. Flags were put up on every property in Audubon.

To the left of the pictures of Weiglein is a simple tribute to him: "Our neighbor. Our friend. Our family. Our hero. Sgt. Joe Weiglein."

Each morning, a poem about Weiglein -- most written by students -- was read aloud with the school's morning announcements.

Lisa McGilloway, one of Weiglein's former teachers, wrote a poem for him that now adorns the school's Web site:

And so our school was touched by him;

We'll never forget you, Joe;

We'll never forget what you have done;

You're our Haviland Hero.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company