A safe return

Local U.S. Air Force Airman Timothy Rihl was honored after coming home from deployment overseas

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

A special salute: At a recent Northampton Township board of supervisors meeting, local Air Force Airman Timothy Rihl was recognized after his safe return from deployment in the Emirates. PHOTO: Peter Palestina

On a large wooden display in the Northampton Township building, 84 American flags sit proudly for all to see. Each represents a local military hero who has safely returned from deployment overseas. At a recent board of supervisors meeting, Churchville’s Timothy Rihl was honored after returning from the Emirates last month. Because of his service to the community and country, the U.S. Air Force airman became the 85th resident to join the ranks of the Northampton Patriots Flag Program.

Established on April 23, 2003, by the board of supervisors, the purpose of the Flag Program is to honor Northampton residents serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. When the initiative began, 24 military flags stood on the display, each bearing the resident’s branch of service and name on a yellow banner. The program has since expanded to include Afghanistan and other hostile areas.

When each soldier returns safely home, they are presented with their respective military flag, which is replaced on the display with an American flag. As of October’s board of supervisors meeting, there are 85 flags, with only one for the armed services waiting to be united with a local Army soldier currently deployed.

Emotions were high as Rihl, joined by his parents Chris and Betty, was presented with his Air Force flag. According to former township supervisor and host of the ceremony, Peter Palestina, the board was unfortunately never informed that Rihl was deployed in April. But when they learned the beloved local firefighter was to return to the States on Oct. 21, a personalized flag was immediately placed in the display.

“With only an hour’s notice, three of the supervisors, myself, Kristin Reilly, Kelly Drucker, Andy Gannon and several of Tim’s friends and neighbors rushed to his house to await his arrival while he was being escorted from I-95 by several Volunteer Fire Company vehicles,” Palestina said.

A hero’s honor: Timothy Rihl is the 85th resident to join the ranks of the Northampton Patriots Flag Program. While a solider is deployed, a military flag emblazoned with their name and branch of service is placed in a special display. Once they’re safely home, that flag is returned to them and replaced with an American flag. PHOTO: Peter Palestina

After the flag presentation, Rihl received three citations from Veterans Advocate David Gibbon on behalf of Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, Larry Weinstein on behalf of state Rep. Scott Petri and Frank O’Donnell, who was representing state Sen. Tommy Tomlinson.

“Your dedication to the goal of keeping America free has served to earn you the title of Northampton Patriot,” Weinstein said on behalf of Petri. “You are truly appreciated by the entire community. In this world of ordinary people, you are simply extraordinary.”

Palestina shared a similar sentiment. Touching on Rihl’s duties with not only the Air Force but also the local fire company, he brought to light the dangers faced and hours spent training, all for the safety of the community.

“As has been documented so often, those that serve our country in the military are at risk, whether they are on U.S. soil or foreign soil,” he said. “Their lives are put on the line each and every day.”

Unfortunately, according to Palestina, not all of the military flags on display are returned to their rightful owners. Two residents, Army PFC Bobbyy Dembowski, Jr. and Army Master Sgt. Ken Elwell lost their lives during their service 10 and six years ago, respectively. Their flags remain on display, front and center, black streams emblazoned with their names.

According to O’Donnell, the current war, which began on Sept. 11, 2001, is one of the longest in American history. As the number of residents deployed continues to grow, so must the size of the flag display. After recognizing Rihl, a special thanks was given to Chris Munz of Munz Construction, who recently expanded the display. Munz’ work allows it to hold an additional 50 flags, bringing the total capacity to 132.

“Anytime I can help the township and this area, I’m happy to do it,” Munz said.

The ceremony ended as Rihl, holding tight to his flag and citations, expressed his gratitude for the unexpected honor.

“Thank you for your service and giving us the opportunity to honor you tonight. Welcome home,” Palestina concluded. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com