A U.S. Army Ranger killed during the Battle of Mogadishu in October, 1993 is being honored in his hometown of Vineland, New Jersey. Next month, the city’s Lincoln Avenue Middle School will be officially renamed as the Sgt. Dominick Pilla Middle School, in honor of the Ranger who graduated from Vineland High School in 1990.
Sgt. Pilla was selected from a list of 12 possible contenders for the designation after his sister, Jennifer Pilla Martine, made it her personal mission to honor her big brother, who was 21 when he died during the battle. He received a posthumous Bronze Star with Valor Device, as well as a Purple Heart.
It took the better part of a year for the district superintendent and school board to come around, but eventually they selected Pilla to be the school’s namesake. The district decided to rename the school as a way to commemorate the efforts of individuals from the community “through education, sports, philanthropy, or sacrificing their lives while protecting others,” reported the Vineland Daily Journal. Other possible honorees were “Salvatore C. Ciarlante, Lee Fiocchi, Frank Giordano, Edgar F. Hill Jr., Roland Kandle, Miles Lerman, Harry P. Mazzochi, Mark Melamed, Michele Morgen, Carlo A. Ricci, and Bernice K. Seibert,” according to the news agency.
Pilla Martine said her brother always wanted to join the Army, but when he considered enlisting after finishing high school, he told recruiters he would only go if he could be a Ranger.
Sgt. Pilla, by all accounts, was a model Ranger, and took time to mentor some of the junior soldiers in his battalion. One of those soldiers, Kevin Matthews, sent a nine-page letter to the Pilla family last year, explaining how their son had taken him under his wing and how much he still meant to him more than two decades after his death.
“When I read the letter, and learned how my brother had been a teacher and mentor to these soldiers, I thought ‘what a better role model for kids?’ and I knew I had to keep fighting to get the school named after him,” Pilla Martine said.
On October 3, 1993, a force of Army Rangers, Delta Force Operators, and Navy SEALs were inserted around a hotel in Mogadishu by helicopters crewed with members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The force was on a mission to capture several high-ranking members of Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s militia clan, which was attacking U.N. peacekeepers and seizing food aid meant for civilians.
As the raid began, Ranger Pfc. Todd Blackburn fell from a Black Hawk helicopter while fast-roping to the ground. Pfc. Blackburn was severely injured in the fall, so a small convoy of Humvees was organized to medivac Pfc. Blackburn back to the Ranger’s base at the Mogadishu airport. Sgt. Pilla was in the lead Humvee when the convoy came under heavy attack by Aidid’s fighters. He was struck in the head by an enemy bullet, which killed him instantly.
The Battle of Mogadishu was the subject of the 1999 book, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War by journalist Mark Bowden. In the 2001 film version of the story, Sgt. Pilla was portrayed by actor Danny Hoch.
In anticipation of the school dedication, a Vineland-based artist was commissioned to paint a portrait of Sgt. Pilla. However, its creation was complicated, as Sgt. Pilla’s uniform was stolen when it was shipped home. Pilla Martine reached out to several Rangers, who joined together to fashion an exact replica of Sgt. Pilla’s uniform jacket, including the correct ribbon rack, according to the Vineland Daily Journal. Matthews was primarily responsible for creating the rack.
More than 40 current and former Rangers are expected to attend the dedication ceremony on April 6th—many of whom contributed awards to construct the replica jacket. The public is welcome to attend. A contingent from the New Jersey National Guard will also be present, and Pilla Martine said she “even got a Black Hawk” to fly over.
“When [Rangers] say they’re brothers, they mean it,” said Pilla Martine.