Supporting a hero
By Neel Thakur and Laura Weiss, Staff Reporter and News Editor
Amidst a crowd of parents, teachers and friends from across the community weaving through the rooms of the Aneu Bistro in Berwyn, there is a line forming. Everyone wants a chance to meet the man whose bravery has brought them together. They all want to meet a hero.
2000 Conestoga graduate Jay Raffetto is that hero. He served as a Special Amphibious Marine Reconnaissance Corpsman in Afghanistan after graduating, but was caught in an explosion and severely injured by an improvised explosive device on Aug. 5, leading to the loss of his legs and one arm.
Former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil held a wine tasting to benefit the Raffetto family through the Chester County Hero Fund at Aneu Bistro on Feb. 24, and teachers Debra Ciamacca and Laurel Light are organizing an event for Conestoga. They will run Operation Gratitude from April 11-15 to collect money for the Jay Raffetto through Chester County Hero Fund and Operation Gratitude club.
The Chester County Hero Fund then gives the funds to the Raffetto family to help support Raffetto through his recovery, and Operation Gratitude supports a larger organization that benefits troops across the country.
“It’s wonderful to see that there is a push for this kind of thing to be talked about and, on a personal level, [I’m] flattered and appreciate that my situation could have spawned such events,” Raffetto said.
Even though Raffetto’s recovery has not been easy, he said that he does not want his story to defer students from joining the armed services. He said that the leadership and values he learned in the military are helping him be strong now, and will help him in a future job. Raffetto is also proud that his story has encouraged awareness about the troops.
“It’s nice to see people pull together because I think that, after a certain point, the war in Afghanistan really goes overlooked in the media,” Raffetto said.
Both Jay and his father, John Raffetto, said that they have been amazed by community support throughout his recovery.
“We’re kind of overwhelmed by the outreach from the community,” John Raffetto said. “Financially it’s been a big help for [the family] moving forward and for the family emotionally, it’s been huge.”
John Raffetto said that he and his wife will attend the Operation Gratitude events at Conestoga and that he is grateful to be a part of a community that has done so much for his son and family.
“We’ve been so lucky to have moved in this area in 1987 and been part of such a great community that has lifted us all up so much as a family and Jay and Emily [Jay’s wife], individually,” John Raffetto said. “It’s quite startling actually.”
John Raffetto said that the initial shock of his son’s injuries was difficult to put into words, but he has begun to see things relative to how much worse they could have been as time goes on.
“His injuries are still significant, but it has really gone from the darkest of days to positive and upbeat,” John Raffetto said.
John Raffetto also noted the strength of his son, as well as that of his daughter-in-law, Emily Raffetto, in how they are dealing with Jay’s injuries and the process of recovery.
With “the bravery of [Jay and Emily], their incredible sense of humor, their upbeat attitude every day and their great work ethic, the future is incredibly bright,” he said. “We’re just very proud of both of them.”
John Raffetto said that the wine tasting at Aneu Bistro, which Vermeil hosted, was one of the highlights of his family’s lives. Vermeil said that he heard about Raffetto’s situation through some friends, and immediately decided he wanted to help. He donated the wine for the fundraiser, and Jay Raffetto thanked him at the event, giving him a patch from his uniform.
“Now it’s an obligation for all of us to help him,” Vermeil said.
Ciamacca and Light are rising to meet this obligation with Conestoga’s Operation Gratitude. By holding a week of fundraisers and activities benefitting Jay Raffetto, they also want to raise awareness about military service and veterans in general.
“I just can’t think of a better cause than helping a young man who decided to become part of the military and gave so much of himself for his country,” Ciamacca said. “If we can even give him back a little of what he gave us, then we are doing a lot.”
Ciamacca and Light are carrying out the operation with the help of other staff members and clubs, including FLITE, Peer Mediation, Key Club, Student Council and REACH.
“As soon as I heard Jay Raffetto’s story, I knew that I wanted to do something to help him and his family,” said senior and FLITE co-president Rachel Skelly. “He’s been through so much, and the least we can do is help out by engaging the school community in the cause.”
The week’s events will include money collections in homeroom, the opportunity to write letters to wounded soldiers and a student-faculty basketball game benefitting Jay Raffetto on April 13. The boys’ and girls’ basketball teams will compete against faculty from across the district, and the marching band and cheerleaders have both offered to perform. Vermeil, John Raffetto and his wife will attend some of the week’s activities.
Along with raising money for Raffetto, Ciamacca hopes that the events of the week will help to raise awareness for injured troops in the community, and strengthen ties with veterans.
“Most students here will never join the military, they may never know anyone in the military and they don’t know what they’re going through,” Ciamacca said. Through Operation Gratitude, “we can make our students appreciate the fact that there are people who are willing to die for their country.”
Neel Thakur can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on p. 3 of the March 28, 2011 issue of The Spoke.