Veterans Day had just passed. But only days later, American flags were again out in the hundreds lining Manatee County roads.
This time, it was to pay tribute a fallen soldier who died on a training mission far, far from home.
Many who came to witness Spc. Nicholas C. Panipinto’s return never knew him personally.
But they knew that Panipinto was from Bradenton, and they appreciated the sacrifice that he was willing to make for people like them.
In many ways, he was like family.
“I have a daughter,” said Bradenton resident Todd Wanchic, who held a full-size American flag among those gathered at the Green Bridge. “This is somebody else’s kid. I just wanted to show support. If this is what helps his family grieve, then I want to be a part of it.”
Panipinto, a Manatee High School graduate, died last week after his Bradley Fighting Vehicle overturned during a training mission at Camp Humphries in South Korea.
The 20-year-old had joined the Army in 2018 and served as an infantryman with the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Hood, Texas.
Steven L. Thom, a Bradenton resident who served in the U.S. Air Force, related to the tragedy on a different level.
“Being prior military, it’s important that we respect and each other and show respect for those who have died in combat or training,” Thom said. “It makes me feel proud that all of these people who are total strangers came out to show respect for this young man.”
Families, friends, first responders, local government officials, veterans and at least one other active U.S. Army member were among the hundreds of Manatee County residents who lined the stretch of Eighth Avenue West in Palmetto leading up to the Green Bridge.
There, they awaited an escort of law enforcement and Patriot Guard Riders that had departed Tampa International Airport earlier that evening. The motorcade guided a hearse carrying Panipinto’s flag-draped casket; it was bound for Bradenton’s Brown & Sons Funeral Home.
On the Bradenton side of the Manatee River, hundreds more gathered in the parking lot of Westgate Shopping Center on Manatee Avenue West for a candlelight vigil.
“We are here to support the family, and all the Americans that have fought for us and are still fighting for our freedom,” said Wanda Moreno, one of the Bradenton residents there.
Sarasota County Judge Maryann Boehm and her daughter Maddy paid tribute by singing “God Bless America,” as a flag was raised over the avenue and the time approached for the escort to pass.
Shortly after 8 p.m., the crowd near the Green Bridge drew close to the road as a parade of law enforcement vehicles and Jeeps decked in stars and stripes appeared on the horizon.
And then, there was silence as the onlookers stood in a somber salute, flags raised in the air and rippling in a cool November breeze.
Amid the blur of honorary lights and the presence of his grateful community, Panipinto’s body was borne across the water and back to his hometown.
Panipinto is expected to be laid to rest on Friday at the Sarasota National Cemetery, however, the cemetery’s website has the service scheduled at 2 p.m. on Nov. 20. Anyone wanting to pay their respects should call the cemetery for verification at 877-861-9840.
A memorial service for Panipinto also is being planned by his unit in South Korea on Friday.
© 2019 The Bradenton Herald
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