With Fiesta Day only three weeks away, Canyon Lakers are eagerly anticipating the many activities that make this community a summer paradise. But Fiesta Day, May 23, is on Memorial Day weekend; and with that in mind, it is also a time to remember the sacrifices of countless thousands of men and women who have served in the U.S. military.
Eight years ago, in Spring 2007, the war in Iraq was in full swing and Canyon Lake residents were getting to know a young officer working with the 399th Combat Support Hospital at Contingency Operating Base (COB) Speicher, Iraq – not far from the birth and burial place of Saddam Hussein.
“Cory” Sean Pisapia, son of Richard and Carol Pisapia, spent much of his youth in Canyon Lake, so patriotic residents were interested to learn about the war through his eyes. Many of them sent care packages to Iraq for his personal use and for the wounded soldiers with whom he worked.
The war took its toll on Sean and he too was wounded in the line of duty, sustaining a spinal injury that has become progressively worse with time. These days he can be seen around Canyon Lake with “Hammer,” a German Shepherd mobility dog that helps him maintain balance while he stands and walks.
Recently the Quilters Dozen, a group of women who work together on quilting projects at the Senior Center, wanted to make sure Sean’s service to his country continues to be remembered and honored. They invited him to join them at the Senior Center for a special presentation of a “Quilt of Valor.”
Member Kathy Barbay says, The ladies are proud of the service all veterans have given to our country. It is a small thing that we can do to show our appreciation!”
Sean says he is deeply grateful for the quilt and touched by the women’s kindness to make it for him. “It’s nice to know that people still appreciate my service,” he says.
It also brought to mind the many gifts Canyon Lakers sent him while he worked at the combat support hospital at COB Speicher – gifts that were used to brighten the lives of patients, fellow soldiers, soldiers passing through the camp, and even Iraqi children the soldiers encountered.
Sean enlisted in the U.S. Army as an E-1 Private in 1995. During advanced individual training (AIT) he trained in field artillery canons. He served for three years, including a stint in Korea, and later attended Mt. San Jacinto Community College and San Diego State University, where he joined the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).
He was commissioned as an officer on December 20, 2003. He tested at the top of the rankings. While serving in the Army Reserves, he was a Signal Officer one weekend a month at March Air Reserve Base; the rest of the time he lived in Orange County and worked full time as a network engineer at First American Title Company.
After being called up for active duty in April 2006, he was assigned to train with the 399th Combat Support Hospital, a reserve unit based in Massachusetts. As a Signal Corps Officer, Cory’s technical skills involved planning, installing, integrating, operating and maintaining the Army’s voice, data and information systems, services and resources.
When the 399th Combat Support Hospital was deployed to operate the hospital facility at COB Speicher in September 2006, Cory was given a staff of 15 technicians to run the information systems.
One of his tasks was to help fellow soldiers and the wounded communicate with their loved ones at home. That in itself was rewarding, but he also was pleased to share the many gifts that were sent to him. At that time, packages sent from the U.S. had to be addressed to real persons, not “Any Soldier” as in previous wars. So everyone in Canyon Lake who wanted to show their support of U.S. soldiers would send packages to Sean to be disbursed as needed.
Articles about Sean’s time at COB Speicher appeared in the February 9 and 16, 2007 issues of The Friday Flyer (www.fridayflyer.com).
(Sean says one consequence of those articles was that someone who worked for Standard Textile, a company that specializes in bed sheets, blankets, surgical gowns and other textiles for the healthcare industry, read them and gave Sean’s name and address to the company, which started sending boxes of these much needed items to the hospital.)
It was while working on a satellite dish at COB Speicher that Sean fell off a roof and injured his spine; however, he remained in the military and had two more deployments. For his second and third deployments he worked in the Criminal Investigation Division, first at the Victory Base Complex in Bagdad and then in Kuwait.
By 2012-13, his spinal injury was taking its toll and he no longer could meet the physical requirements of the U.S. Army. Although he had hoped to do another five to 10 years in the military, he was told he had to get out.
“Looking back I can see they made the right decision,” he says. The injury resulted in peripheral neuropathy, a disorder of the motor, sensory and autonomic nerves that connect the spinal cord to muscles, skin and internal organs. It usually affects the hands and feet, causing weakness, numbness, tingling and pain. Sean says he lives with constant pain and often loses his balance.
Last Fall, at about the same time he began working in real estate with his dad for Coldwell Banker Canyon Lake, he was able to obtain a mobility dog from Thor’s Hope Foundation (thorshope.org). The foundation trains and provides therapeutic dogs for anyone with mobility issues, not just veterans. He obtained Hammer just a few weeks before attending the Veterans Day event in the Towne Center.
They easily transitioned into working with each other. Hammer is very smart and recognizes commands in both English and German. Sean says the German commands carry more authority, meaning “do this now!” Hammer wears a custom made harness that provides stability when Sean stands up, sits down, walks or falls. Hammer also is trained to open doors when Sean’s hands are full and to pick up items from the floor. He wears a sign that reminds people that he is working and shouldn’t be petted.
Asked how it feels to be back in civilian life, Sean says he misses the camaraderie of the military, he misses his friends and he misses “the mission.” But he does feel at home in Canyon Lake and looks forward to Fiesta Day, Taco Tuesday and other Canyon Lake gatherings. He grew up here, his parents live here and his grandparents built one of the first houses here.
He says one of the highlights of serving overseas was the chance to meet people from so many different cultures. Asked what he would like to say to his fellow residents, Sean says, “Travel out of the U.S. and talk to people. Other cultures think differently from us. Americans need to visit other countries to see what happens when you don’t have the freedom and civil rights we have here – freedom of speech and freedom of the press. You can’t understand what you have until you understand what you could lose.” Most of all he would like to say, “Thank you for the support over the years.”
Memorial Day Message
In May 2007, Sean sent this message to Canyon Lake via The Friday Flyer:
“Speaking only for myself, it does not matter to me if you are for or against this war but that you participate in the process. As Americans you have the ability and some would say duty to speak out through demonstration for or against anything you deem necessary, and to speak to and through your congressional leaders.
“As you are watching the news and other programs, if you feel that your voice is not being heard, use these avenues and rights that are often taken for granted – these rights that most of the world does not have. Sometimes we need to to be reminded of just how lucky we are.
“I remember a day while I was going to San Diego State University (a school very supportive of the military). I was walking across the campus in uniform, an unannounced anti-war rally spontaneously started and I was immediately in the middle of a mass of people. As I tried to leave the area and leave them in peace to hold their rally, I was stopped by eight or so of my fellow students, one especially with the assistance and taunting by his friends, asking me, ‘How can you be in the military and support this war?’ as well as some more disturbing accusations I will not repeat here.
“While his question startled me a little, I did not even need to think to come up with an answer, as I stated, ‘Whether or not you agree with this war does not even matter to me. If it were not for people like me, and the many others like me doing what we do, you would not have the right to be here having this rally. In many countries speaking against the government is illegal and you can be arrested or even killed. That is why I do what I do, so that you can have the right to even be here speaking at all.’
“As the elections start to get closer and issues become clearer, become part of the process if you are not already. Know what the issues are, know something about them and speak your mind – politely, civilly, clearly – but make sure you are heard because every voice counts.
It is what our forbearers fought and died for and what we continue to fight for today. And this Memorial Day as you see your friends and family members, take the time to say thank you to those who are veterans.”