By Staff Sgt. Michael J Pryor (82d Airborne)April 24, 2009
In the summer of 2003, a young man named Joe Vanek walked into a room at the Chicago Military Entrance Processing Station, raised his right hand, and swore to defend his country as an American Soldier.
In the years that followed, Vanek kept his oath, becoming a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division and deploying three times to Iraq. On his final tour, Vanek, still only 22 years old, was a squad leader, watching over his Soldiers with quiet confidence and a sly sense of humor.
"He was an awesome guy, a wonderful leader," said Sgt. Thomas Neelon, who served beside him in Iraq.
And then, suddenly, he was gone, felled by a sniper's bullet during a patrol in one of Baghdad's toughest neighborhoods.
That was in November 2007. Yet, today, a year and a half after his death, Joe Vanek is still leading by example. At the Chicago MEPS, his face now looks down from a framed plaque on a wall in the same room where he first swore his oath, a room that now bears his name as a reminder to those who would follow in his footsteps of what a Soldier should be.
The Sgt. Joseph M. Vanek Ceremony Room was officially dedicated at an April 20th ceremony in the MEPS building attended by more than a hundred people, including family, friends, and members of Vanek's old unit.
The ceremony was the culmination of a process that began months ago with an idea to recognize military personnel from the Chicago area who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, said 1st Sgt. David Davis, the senior non-commissioned officer at the Chicago MEPS.
According to Lt. Col. Holly Gay, the MEPS Commander, more than 150 servicemembers who in-processed through the Chicago MEPS have been killed in action since 2001.
Vanek, an Elmhurst, Ill. native, was chosen to represent them all.
Before making that decision, Gay and Davis reviewed every servicemember's file, poring over award citations and military records. Gay said all the fallen servicemembers were heroes who deserved to be recognized, but Vanek stood out.
As they looked through the files, Gay and Davis kept coming back to Vanek's picture.
"It kind of came down to a gut feeling," Gay said.
In January 2009, Gay contacted Vanek's parents, Frank and Jan Vanek, to see if they had any objection to the MEPS re-naming the swearing-in room after their son.
"We were flabbergasted," Frank Vanek said.
Despite their surprise, the Vanek family quickly agreed to participate in the process. Joe, they felt, would have appreciated the tribute.
"Joe wouldn't have wanted a big deal, but he would be honored," said his older sister, Ann Vanek. "Joe was very proud of his military career. He was very proud of everything he had accomplished towards the end of it, and if anything is going to represent his life, it should be a military swearing-in room - it should be a building that honors men and women who are going to do something similar to what he did."
With the Vaneks' support, Gay, Davis, and their staff at the MEPS set a date for the ceremony. As word of the event began trickling out through the Vaneks' network of family and friends, Frank and Jan were touched by the response they got from members of Joe's unit.
"We were amazed by how many of them wanted to come," Frank Vanek said.
In the end, almost 30 past and present members of Joe's old unit, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, attended the ceremony. Many took time off from their jobs and drove long distances to be there. Those on active duty flew in from Fort Bragg, immaculate in their green dress uniforms and shiny jump boots. They formed a tight knot around the Vaneks, wrapping Jan in hugs and cracking jokes about Joe with his sister Ann.
"It was a tribute to our son that all these people, most of them on their own dime, would come down here for the ceremony. My wife and I were very proud," Frank Vanek said afterwards.
Neelon, one of Joe's closest friends through three tours in Iraq, said there was never any question of not coming.
"They've become family," Neelon said of the Vaneks.
Ann Vanek reciprocated the feeling.
"I feel like I've inherited four younger brothers," she said.
After the ceremony was finished, and all the guests had passed through the ceremony room and seen Joe's picture hanging on the wall, Frank and Jan Vanek lingered in the empty, quiet room. Frank, a veteran himself, thought back on his own oath of enlistment and the link that went from him, to Joe, to all the Soldiers who would soon be passing through.
"Just like my son, other brave young men and women will be coming through and raising their hand to swear the oath . . . This room is special," he said.
Gay said re-naming the room after Sgt. Vanek would send a strong message to new recruits that they are part of an unbroken chain.
"It says, 'No one ever forgets you. You will always be remembered,'" she said.
Yet, paying tribute to Sgt. Vanek is also, in a way, a challenge to those preparing to follow in his footsteps, Gay said.
"Sgt. Joe Vanek is looking down on you - live up to what he expects you to be," she said.