Traveling exhibit honoring soldiers returns to Valley, this time Tempe - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Traveling exhibit honoring soldiers returns to Valley, this time Tempe

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Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2012 10:07 am | Updated: 11:28 am, Tue May 1, 2012.

An exhibit dedicated to the fallen soldiers of Arizona will be rolling into the East Valley this week in time for a ceremony that includes Tempe’s American Legion Post 138 in honor of a fallen Valley servicemen.

On Oct. 26, 2005, Army Reserve Sgt. James Witkowski, 32, was just one month from coming home after serving his third tour in Iraq, when he died instantly after an improvised explosive device exploded on his crew’s Humvee. They were traveling with about 100 soldiers in a 23-vehicle convoy transporting supplies from Camp Anaconda near Balad, Iraq, to Forward Operating Base Suse, northeast of Kirkuk. Witkowski was assigned to the Army Reserve’s 729th Transportation Company based in Fresno, Calif.

Witkowski, who placed his body over the IED to save his fellow soldiers, is among 140 Arizona service men and women featured in the “Remembering Our Fallen” exhibit who died in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those, 17 are from the East Valley.

The exhibit will open at VFW Post 138, 107 E. Broadway Road in Tempe near Mill Avenue, on Wednesday and will be there through May 11.

In a day-long celebration beginning at noon on Saturday, May 5, American Legion Post 138 will be renamed the James Witkowski Post 138, accompanied by a barbecue, raffles and door prizes and a live band in the evening.

Witkowski’s parents, James and Barbara Witkowski, will be present.

In a statement issued by American Legion Post 138, Barbara Witkowski said of her son, “He always looked after other people. He was a defender of everyone. It was just such a selfless act that took his life a month before he was scheduled to come home from Iraq.” Witkowski received the Silver Star posthumously for bravery in action.

The exhibit was organized by Remembering Our Fallen, a Nebraska-based nonprofit organization that has researched those who have died while defending the nation since 9/11. The group is completing such traveling exhibits on a state-by-state basis to put on display at service-related organizations.

Remembering Our Fallen exhibits also have been done for Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa and Missouri, and an exhibit for North Dakota will be unveiled in Fargo on Saturday. Exhibits for Kansas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin are in the works and plans are under way to place the exhibit in high schools, said Bill Williams, president of Remembering Our Fallen.

Although Witkowski’s residence is listed as Surprise on the Remembering Our Fallen exhibit, he was a graduate of Arcadia High School in east Phoenix close to where the American Legion Post 138 initially had planned to move. However, the post changed its plans and decided to move into Tempe but is following through on its plans to rename the post for Witkowski.

“He always had his arms around the people he cared for,” said Joni Baginski, the president of the Ladies Auxiliary at American Legion Post 138. “He was an incredible human being. One of the things we keep hearing from those who knew him and the soldiers who served with him was that he had an incredible sense of humor. We couldn’t think of a better person to rename our post after.”

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