SKOWHEGAN — Derek DeFelice was 18 and fresh out of high school on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists struck the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon and commandeered a jet that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

Furious that America had come under attack, DeFelice, then of Waterville, joined the U.S. Army.

He served in Afghanistan and in Iraq, earning a Purple Heart along the way.

DeFelice, 34, is this year’s grand marshal for Monday’s Memorial Day parade in Skowhegan. The lineup for the parade begins at 9:15 a.m. on Dyer Street, which is off Madison Avenue. Groups that plan to march are asked to show up at 9:15 a.m.

“I joined because of 9/11,” he said from his new Hero’s House of Pizza, the former Angelo’s Pizzeria on Waterville Road in Skowhegan, which he took over last year. “I felt that that was what I had to do. To put a reason behind it, I just felt like it was the right thing to do at the time and I wanted to serve my country.”

DeFelice was a team leader with the 25th Infantry Division and the 162nd Air Defense Artillery. He was a team member on an Avenger, a Humvee with Stinger missiles and a 50-caliber machine gun capable of shooting 2,000 rounds a minute. He left the military with a rank of staff sergeant.

He joined the Army in 2001 and served until 2009. During that time, he was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, where he was deployed to the mountains of Afghanistan and attached to Special Forces in 2004 and 2005 as an air defense artillery gunner. During the 14-month tour, he was wounded by small arms fire — shot three times in the chest in an ambush, suffering six broken ribs and saved by a protective vest.

In 2005 he was reassigned to Fort Drum, New York, and deployed to Iraq in 2006 and 2007 with the 10th Mountain 210th Brigade Support Battalion and as a personal security detail team leader in southern Baghdad. During the 16-month deployment, he was struck 28 times by roadside bombs and was awarded the Purple Heart.

“I was the lead gun truck. The driver’s side tire struck an (improvised explosive device). I looked into the hole and looked at it as it went off,” he said, adding he doesn’t remember what happened next.

Steve Spaulding, commander of American Legion Post 16 in Skowhegan, said he nominated DeFelice as the parade marshal this year. He said DeFelice is the youngest veteran to serve in that capacity in the 20 years since he has been with the post.

“You’re looking at one of our new heroes right there,” Spaulding said. “That’s why. We just want to honor him for the service that he did for the country.”

“It’s an honor,” DeFelice said of being named parade marshal. “I was surprised. I remember growing up as a kid going to all the Memorial Day parades and seeing all the World War I vets, World War II vets, Vietnam.”

The parade, which begins at 10 a.m., is held to honor those lost during a day of remembrance and will feature local veterans, local legislators and local groups that support veterans, said Jason Gayne, executive director of the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce. The parade will be followed by a short ceremony at Skowhegan Veterans Park on Water Street. This is a rain-or-shine event.

The parade route begins at the intersection of Dyer Street and Madison Avenue, which is also U.S. Route 201, and turns left heading south toward downtown Skowhegan. The parade will then take a left onto Water Street and travel through the downtown, ending at Skowhegan Veterans Park.

Additional event parking and float parking is available at the Catholic Church just past the park on Water Street. Traffic will be stopped for the parade on the corresponding streets during the parade.

“We encourage everyone to be a part of this great parade,” Gayne said.

Hero’s House of Pizza also features a Fallen Soldier Table in memory of veterans who gave their lives for freedom, DeFelice said. He said the table is on display all the time and brings in veterans from all over Maine.

With post-traumatic stress disorder from his combat experiences, DeFelice said he also supports the Hero Pups program, which places puppies with veterans and first responders.

The focus is on those who are dealing with PTSD, anxiety and service-connected challenges. By using shelter and rescue pups whenever possible, they are able to help relieve the symptoms while helping a rescue pup in the process.

The mission of the all-volunteer organization is to acquire and train dogs that have the potential to undergo and complete successfully the rigorous training that allows them to assist veterans and first responders, thus increasing their independence and peace of mind.

He has been married to his wife, Aaron DeFelice, for 14 years. They have three children together, Hannah, 12, Connor, 9, and Hunter, 3.

 

 


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