FORT POLK, La. - It began with a little girl's love of Soldiers and helicopters. It ended with Tristen Bodie, 13, passing away July 11.
Bodie was full of life and a happy little girl, according to her mom, Leann Parrott.
One of Tristen's last happy moments that stood out for her mom was a chance meeting between her daughter and a Soldier at Fort Polk's FreedomFest. That Soldier was Chief Warrant Officer 3 Nickolas Sciacca, 1st Battalion, 5th Aviation Regiment safety officer, who worked at the static display during the event.
His job was to show off the UH-72 Lakota helicopter to attendees at FreedomFest. Her mom said Tristen was excited about seeing the helicopters and posed for a picture with Sciacca in front of a UH-72 Lakota.
After Tristen's death, her mom posted that picture on Facebook. Someone saw the picture and contacted Sciacca to tell him about Tristen's death.
"When I found out that the young lady had passed away, I felt like I needed to do something. I contacted the mother and said I would like to fly a helicopter and take Tristen's picture and an American flag in her honor. Tristen's mom didn't realize who I was at first. Then she figured out that I was the pilot her daughter had taken the picture with that day," he said.
Sciacca asked pilots Chief Warrant Officer 2 Trey Crockett, 5th Aviation Reg pilot in command, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Alex Direnzo, pilot, if they would help him honor Tristen's memory during an already scheduled routine training mission. Their answer was a resounding yes.
"We got a flag and a picture of Tristen, put them in the aircraft and proceeded with our training mission. When we landed back at Fort Polk, I contacted Tristen's mother and we scheduled a visit for the family to present them with the flag and a certificate," said Sciacca.
Crockett said he has a daughter and three younger sisters and so this situation really hit home for him knowing that this Family lost a daughter and sister.
"I absolutely wanted to be a part of that," he said.
In addition, Crockett recognized that one of Tristen's last interactions with Fort Polk and the Army was learning about and sitting in the same UH-72 Lakota helicopter (call number R72163) that they were flying in her honor during their training mission. "The purpose of taking that flag and her picture up with us in 'her' helicopter and then presenting that flag to the family was to help give them some type of closure. I really liked trying to do that for them," he said.
Direnzo said they were proud to honor this young lady's memory while doing what they love to do - fly.
"Knowing this helicopter was the same aircraft she sat in during FreedomFest made what would have been a normal training mission something special," he said.
When Sciacca found out that Tristen had passed away, he said he felt helpless and could only assume that Tristen's parents felt the same way while trying to deal with their grief.
"There's not much you can do in this situation. What do you say to someone grieving like this? You want to convey that you are grieving with them and are sorry that it happened," he said. "That's why I wanted to do something nice to help them remember their daughter. Flying the flag (during the training mission) for them allowed me to feel like I was helping create a good memory for their family."
Though the Soldiers said they didn't do this for attention or accolades, Fort Polk's command heard about what happened and wanted to acknowledge Sciacca, Crockett and Direnzo for their actions.
A ceremony to honor them took place at the 1st Bn, 5th Aviation Reg hangar Aug. 15. Tristen's family was in attendance.
Lt. Col. Connie M. Lane, 1/5 commander, said Soldiers should remember that they are all members of the larger community that lies beyond Fort Polk's gates. He thanked Sciacca, Crockett and Direnzo for doing just that.
"These Soldiers exemplify the Army's values when it comes to caring for our citizens. Unprompted, they provided support for this grieving family when they were in need and experiencing hardship. What they have done is provide us all with an example of what we should try to do every day," he said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jerry L. Dodson, Fort Polk's garrison command sergeant major, was in attendance to present Sciacca with a certificate of appreciation and a coin. Crockett and Direnzo were also presented with coins.
One of the best parts of his job, according to Dodson, is recognizing Soldiers that not only do great things for Fort Polk and their unit, but also the community outside Fort Polk's gates.
"I think most of us can agree that with all of the negative things we see in our society today, it's good when you see something positive. That's exactly what these Soldiers did. They took a tragic event and have done their best to counter it and it's appreciated," he said.
What Sciacca did, said Dodson, was to demonstrate a moral compass. "He went above and be yond by showing unsurpassed compassion and empathy during a time of tragic loss," he said.
After the ceremony, Parrott and daughters, Skylar, 17, and McKinley, 15, toured the hangar.
While her daughters sat in the same helicopter Tristen toured at FreedomFest and where her flag was flown, Parrott reflected on her daughter. She said her baby was supposed to still be here, but she's not. "What the Army has done for us has been comforting. It wasn't three or four days after we buried her before I was contacted for the first time by Mr. Sciacca," she said.
Tristen grabbed him (Sciacca) at Freedom Fest and made him stop what he was doing to give him a hug and thank him for his service, said Parrott. He showed her everything about that helicopter.
From left to right: Chief Warrant Officer 2 Trey Crockett, 1st Battalion, 5th Aviation Regiment pilot in command, McKinley Parrott, 15, Skylar Parrott, 17, (Tristen's sisters) and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Alex Direnzo, 1st Bn, 5th Aviation Reg pilot, stand in front of the UH-72 Lakota that they flew with Tristen's flag and picture on during a recent training mission.
"She did that anytime she saw a Soldier, but there was something about him (Sciacca) that she imme
diately connected with. She called him "my Soldier" from that point on," she said.
Parrott thinks Tristen would probably have gone into the Army.
"Tristen was all about the military and helicopters. She would always say, 'Momma, I gotta keep my military figure because I want to fly.'"
Tristen's sisters said she would have thought all of this attention was "cool" and would probably be doing a happy dance right now.
Parrott said Tristen's siblings are dealing with their sister's loss as best they can. "As long as they are staying busy, they are OK. That's why things like this (touring the hangar) help so much. I think these distractions and m
eeting and talking with the Soldiers that have treated them like family have kept my girls going."
Parrott said she honestly doesn't know what she would have done if it weren't for these Soldiers. "When he (Sciacca) sent that picture with the flag, I started bawling. How many people do you know that would do this kind of thing? They reached out to us. They didn't have to do that, but they did. He (Sciacca) contacts me all the time now. It's so sweet. It's meant the world to us," she said.