Guilderland mourns a fallen soldier

GUILDERLAND — Schoolchildren lined Coons Road on Tuesday afternoon, quietly holding patriotic signs they had made; many placed their hands over their hearts. They were waiting for a hearse.

First came a motorcade of Patriot Guard Riders. They were solemn, driving their motorcycles in a steady line. They rode under an enormous American flag, suspended between the ladders of two fire trucks, one on either side of the road.As the black hearse with the United States Army seal on its door rolled under the flag, red and white stripes were reflected on its shiny surface.

The volunteer firemen in their dress blues saluted as the hearse drove by, a wave of white gloves rising and falling as the firemen stood at crisp attention by the edge of the road.

The hearse carried the body of Lt. Col. Todd J. Clark. A career Army leader, and a married father of two, he had been killed on Saturday, June 8, in Afghanistan. He was 44.

He died of injuries suffered from small arms fire received at Zarghun Shahr, Afghanistan, according to the United States Department of Defense. LTC Clark along with another member of the U.S. International Security Assistance Force and a U.S. civilian were killed when a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform turned his 
weapon against the ISAF service members; the shooter was killed and another was arrested that day, according to the ISAF.

The International Security Assistance Force, led by NATO, was established by the United Nations 
Security Council to train Afghan National Security Forces and help Afghanistan rebuild its 
government; it is also engaged in the war with insurgent groups.

On Tuesday, the day of LTC Clark’s funeral, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a statement saying the Afghan National Security Forces had that morning formally assumed the lead for combat operations across the country.

The funeral was held in the church where LTC Clark had been married, St. Madeleine Sophie. He had been raised in Guilderland, the son of a retired Army colonel.

After graduating from Christian Brothers Academy in Albany in 1990, he went on to earn a bachelor of science degree from Texas A&M University and master’s degrees from Naval Postgraduate School and Command and General Staff College.

LTC Clark, a Security Force Assistance Advisory Team commander, was commissioned into the Army in 1995, after completing the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, according to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, his unit; he had arrived at Fort Drum in January 2009. He deployed to Bosnia in 1999, to Kuwait in 2003, to Iraq in 2003, 2006, and 2009, and to Afghanistan in 2010 and again in January 2013.

He served in Kuwait and Bosnia with the 1st Cavalry Division and, as troop commander, led Lightning Troop, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in the attack on Iraq, for his first combat tour. He was an advisor to the Iraqi Special Police Commandos on his second combat tour. He then served with the 10th Division staff in Iraq on his third tour; he was the operations officer with one of the 10th Division Cavalry squadrons in Afghanistan on his fourth combat tour.

There he was injured by an improvised explosive device and spent eight months recuperating at Walter Reed Military Hospital, receiving a Purple Heart.

He then served as an executive officer with another 10th Division Cavalry Squadron at Fort Drum, and as Senior Advisor to the Afghan National Army for this fifth and last combat tour. His list of awards is a long one.

“Our fallen hero” said the sign at the Fort Hunter firehouse across Carman Road from St. Madeleine Sophie Church as police helped the steady flow of mourners navigate the traffic.

Inside the filled church, all was quiet. Among the mourners in dark suits and dresses were many men in uniform — broad shoulders crowned with epaulettes, chests decked with ribbons.

“O, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,” the mourners sang, completing all the verses of Katherine Lee Bates’s patriotic anthem.

After the placing of the cross, the church was silent save for soft sounds of weeping. Then, the distant strains of bagpipes were heard and the rhythmic beat of a drum. Silence returned, followed by the quick cadence of heels on the tile floor, before the coffin was brought into the church.

Cousins remember

Then, in the midst of fresh grief, LTC Clark’s young cousins found a way to memorialize him with their words.

“He was the only man I knew who was as strong as he looked,” said Kay-leigh Hicks.

“Take a look around,” urged Sierra Pizzola. “Look how many people are here.” The mourners did as she bid and saw several hundred people filling the pews and the extra chairs that had been placed in the church.

Ms. Pizzola concluded that her cousin must have been special to command such a crowd. She said he “knew how to light up a room” and “was always the life of a party.”

She spoke of the two beautiful children he had raised and urged, “Let’s celebrate.”

Ms. Pizzola said that her cousin was a “glass-half-full kind of person” and urged again, “Take a look around at the force of good Todd assembled here today.”

She ended by addressing her cousin directly: “Thank you for the sacrifices you made, and Todd, you are, always have been, and always will be my hero.”

Treavor Carpenter then stepped up to the microphone and quietly spoke of the importance of honoring veterans.

She recalled July 5, 2010 when her cousin “almost gave up his life fighting for the freedoms we have today.”

Ms. Carpenter described her cousin as altruistic, saying that he “courageously and bravely worked with forces overseas to help other countries live without despair.”

She concluded, “Whenever we see the American flag wave, we will know you are still watching over us.”

Anthony Pizzola then read from an e-mail his cousin had sent, modestly, in response to being chosen Person of the Year. “I don’t feel like I deserve this honor,” LTC Clark had written, accepting the honor on behalf of those who served with him.

He complimented Anthony’s dad, a police officer as “someone I look up to every day.”

Anthony Pizzola concluded, “Todd, you’ll always be my role model.”

Finally, Sierra Pizzola read a poem written by Spencer Carpenter, starting, “I wish for world peace. I wish my cousin Todd never died…I wish I got to say goodbye…He died for our freedoms and to protect our country.”

The poem concluded, “I wish, I wish, I wish…We love you and miss you, my cousin, my hero. We’ll never forget you.”

Marching on

After prayers and song and Biblical readings, Rev. James Belogi gave the homily. He started with the description of a familiar occurrence, a power outage, when lights go off and computer screens dim.

“We are plunged into a deep darkness,” the priest said, noting this can cause confusion, disorientation, and anger that life has been interrupted.

“The first thing we do is go seek a source of light,” he said.

Rev. Belogi said that, on learning of LTC Clark’s death, those closest to him were “plunged into a deep darkness, a profound sadness” and there was some disorientation and anger.

“We know Todd served in dangerous places many times...that his life was quite normally at risk. Yet there is that shock of death…the profound sadness of loss.”

Rev. Belogi told the mourners, “This is all our loss…We believe Todd has gone into a fuller life, into a greater life…and so we are left to grieve and the grieving has only begun.”

He urged that “the light of our faith” would bring “comfort and consolation.”

Referring to LTC Clark’s five eloquent cousins, the priest went on, “As the children so beautifully spoke of, we keep Todd’s memory alive…He has so much to teach us and offer us.”

Rev. Belogi then shared some of his own memories, picturing him in his parents’ backyard, where he made people feel welcome and shared his sense of humor. The only time the mourners laughed was when Rev. Belogi described “Todd enjoying a good cigar and trying to get you to enjoy a good cigar as well.”

On a more solemn note, the priest recalled preparing Shelley and Todd for their wedding and praying for his recovery because he was a man so full of life.

“He was a good man,” Rev. Belogi said, lauding LTC Clark for his “love of country” as well as his humble nature.

“How quick he was to shine a light on others,” not craving attention for himself, the priest said, exemplifying “that camaraderie” that exists between brothers and sisters of arms.

“We have wonderful images of eternal life,” the priest said of the way the dead may rest in peace. But, he went on, for Catholics, “It’s a little more dynamic as well” since the dead are “joined with Christ.”

“They are watching over us,” the priest said, “and cheering us on.”

He concluded, “Our life with Todd is not all in the past…He is cheering us on…to live life with dedication, with honor, with valor and humor, but most of all with love…”

After communion and more song, and hearing the Brigadier General Richard Clarke of the 10th Mountain Division describe LTC Clark as a robust man full of energy and life leading his squadron, doing the hardest job in the military because he wanted to, the service concluded with Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” the mourners sang the Civil War hymn. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored….”

****

LTC Todd J. Clark is survived by his parents, Raymond J. “Jack” Clark, a retired colonel with the United States Army, and Kathleen Murphy Clark; his brother, Kyle E. Clark; his wife, Shelley Wuenstel Clark; his children, Collin Thomas Clark and Madison Elaine Clark — described by his family as “his greatest accomplishments in life.”

He is also survived by his in-laws, Paul Wuenstel and Susan Chancellor, and his grandmother, Helen Wuenstel.

He is survived, too, by his uncles and aunts, Edward V. and Jeanne Owens Casserly, and Richard P. and Carolyn Clark of England, and his godmother, Debra Casserly Warton of California; by many treasured nieces, nephews, cousins, and extended family within the AOH and military communities.

His grandparents, Raymond G. and Gloria M. Sabey Clark and John T. and Margaret Owens Murphy, died before him, as did his uncle and godfather, Gary E. Clark.

Services will take place today and Friday in San Antonio, Texas at the Sunset Funeral Home with interment in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Clark Children Education Trust Fund, care of New Comer Cannon Funeral Home, 343 New Karner Road, Albany, NY 12205.

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